Gina Chersevani’s voice radiates with excitement when she considers the possibilities available to her now that she has her own standalone location of Buffalo & Bergen, the bagel, knish, and egg cream counter in Union Market that was part of the food hall’s opening lineup seven years ago.
Chersevani, one of D.C.’s foremost purveyors of New York culture, loves her “Union Market family” and hopes to be there for 100 years. But noncompetes and requirements to conform within the design of the massive enterprise crimp her style in a few ways. The second Buffalo & Bergen, a tiny 27-seat operation with a minimalist retro design that pays homage to Dorothy Draper, opens for breakfast and lunch this morning in Capitol Hill, and Chersevani can feel the freedom. She can make french fries! No one is telling her she can’t serve espresso. If she wants to run a hamburger on one her bagels made with New York water, she doesn’t have to clear it with anybody.
“Now I finally have the first time to say this is what I think Buffalo & Bergen looks like,” she says.
Loyal customers from Union Market will recognize the menu, especially for the first couple of weeks. Buffalo & Bergen (240 Massachusetts Avenue NE) is starting out with a daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and a menu of bagel sandwiches and cocktails that are already working for the brand. One new addition is a Hasidic Tiger Mom sandwich with roast beef and a rainbow cabbage slaw dressed in horseradish-filled tiger sauce on a marble rye bagel. Another newcomer is the melty Cheezus Has Risen bagel with double-cream brie, smoked gouda, and cheddar.
There’s a “Matzo Baller” soup with lemongrass chicken stock and balls made with duck fat. Latkes, which have typically been served only during December at Union Market, will be available every day of the year. The fried potato pancakes comes with two condiments: a creme fraiche mascarpone dip and a bourbon and Granny Smith apple relish.
Once the new location finds its footing, Buffalo & Bergen will roll out a dinner menu, something it’s never done at Union Market. Chef Adam Miller, formerly of O-Ku, has Jewish heritage to draw upon. And chef Silvia Zelaya brings a Salvadoran point of view. There will be specials like a sweet and sour brisket braised with tomatoes and raisins that’s served over garlic polenta cakes. Zelaya is making a Salvadoran stew with pulled chicken, chickpeas, honey squash, and cilantro rice. Meatloaf stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, soppressata, and provolone will be baked and served cold on sandwiches with white bread.
Chersevani grew up in an Italian family on Long Island but attended Hebrew school because her mother worked at the Jewish Community Center in West Hempstead. She plans to introduce a “Saucy Sunday” menu that pulls from the recipe book of her father’s long running Italian restaurant in New York. He bequeathed it to her when he died.
What Chersevani wants to replicate is the corner store deli culture of New York, giving customers a reliable place they can stop in and find everything from corned beef and pastrami sandwiches (Buffalo & Bergen cures its own meats) to influences from other populations of the neighborhood. In New York, she says, customers will find tamales, chicken cutlet sandwiches, or even sushi all alongside Jewish deli staples. She’s serving Lavazza espresso beans, because to her, that’s what deli cappuccinos tastes like.
“I love deli culture,” she says. “I love when delicatessen’s turn into corner delis, when all of the sudden the two things got married.”
The cocktail menu includes Chersevani’s bloody mary — there’s a $19.50 option that comes with a pastrami-spiced lox bagel garnish — and a lineup of Big Apple-themed concoctions from general manager Amy Hosseinnian and beverage manager Frank Jones that incorporate different varieties of apples into each drink.
The ”Fanielli’s Famous Sauce,” invented by Hosseinnian, is a pink slushy drink that mixes vodka, raspberry, and cranberry with a shaved Pink Lady apple and a topping of sparkling wine. Jones’s “Vessel-ish” comes with scotch, dry vermouth, creole bitters, a touch of honey, and a dramatic spiral of sliced Empire apples.
For Chersevani, an art school grad, a new look dominated by black and white tiles with minty, seafoam green walls, serves to preserve the ideal of a corner deli that’s an essential component of the neighborhood. She wants people to think they might have stepped into a restored soda shop from 1931.
And as much as she’s excited by the new items on the menu, she wants her customers to feel like they don’t need to read one at all. She wants to build enough trust that people leave the decision-making to her and just order the special, whether it be stuffed cabbage or cauliflower mash with garlic and creamy French cheese.
Already at Buffalo & Bergen, she says, people will call in catering orders that only provide the amount of people they need to feed, their budgets, and the occasion at hand. That’s Chersevani’s favorite kind of order.
“That’s what I want [to be],” she says, “trusted deli man, or woman in this case.”