Belly Pleaser 

Ambitious, wide-ranging menu at Del's Beli

Though the signs leading one through the parking lot still say Bell's Market Deli, the name, the menu and a significant portion of the interior have all changed. Bell's Deli is now Del's Beli, the latest acquisition by Joe Coleman, owner of The Blue Star.

It's still too early for Del's to have settled in to its true restaurant identity -- Will it be as relentlessly hip as the Blue Star? Will it be a neighborhood bistro? -- but by all indications, it will be a success. The range of its menu alone will satisfy a varied audience. Want a burger and a beer? Got it. Seafood and a nice chardonnay? Check. Got the kids along with you? No problem. Pizza, chicken fingers, hot dogs and fries ought to fill them up.

This expansive menu caused some indecision problems on our first visit. Even with five of us, there were too many choices. We skipped the baked Mussels and blue corn quesadillas in favor of two other appetizers, the Toasted Ravioli and a broiled Portobello Crostini topped with a sliver of softened garlic. Both were terrific. The beef-filled ravioli was crispy with cheese and nicely balanced by a simple marinara dipping sauce. We ate the crostini so quickly it had no time to get soggy.

In deference to the Midwestern tastes of one in our crowd and in the interests of research, we included a jumbo hot dog with our appetizers. The consensus: not bad, and with its huge serving of salty, tasty fries, probably worth its $5.75 price tag.

Salad lovers have much to be thankful for at Del's. In addition to classics like a Chef Salad and a toned-down Nioise, there are two different chicken salads -- one with walnuts, cherries and organic mixed greens, one with spinach, orange sections and water chestnuts -- and a Crawfish Salad with romaine lettuce. Two standouts: the Company Salad, spinach with sun-dried tomato pesto and parmigiano cheese, and the Jordan, a salad of organic greens with spicy pecans, Bermuda onion, Kalamata olives and blue cheese. The stars on all the salads are the dressings. The honey Creole mustard vinaigrette on the Crawfish Salad had us howling for more; other salads feature a citrus or cherry vinaigrette. Perfect for light summertime dining.

Often what distinguishes the mundane from the memorable are details like fresh and unusual vinaigrettes or, in the case of Del's sandwiches, unique spreads. The South End sandwich -- bacon, cheddar and roast beef that was a little too Arby-like -- was rescued by a tangy tarragon mustard and a garlic mayo. Lingonberry aioli takes turkey uptown while a creolaise sauce dresses up the Po'boys. If none of the seven standard sandwiches interest you, build your own. With eight different meats, eight different veggies and eight different cheeses available, if you can think it, you can build it. And build it big: half sandwiches are available. All sandwiches come with the best fries I've had in a restaurant since the early days of hand-cut fries at Primitivo.

Any menu as ambitious as Del's is bound to have successes and disappointments. The hamburger was thick, juicy, perfectly prepared. And with the variety of burger toppings, any carnivore will be happy. The spinach burrito, despite its size (massive) and despite its promising ingredients (fresh spinach, carrots, black beans, corn, cheese and rice) was less satisfying, primarily because of the disproportion of rice (way too much).

I would advise against the pizza for anyone over the age of 12. Its thin crust lacked taste and texture, its sauce suggested tomato paste undiluted by seasoning, and its toppings were sliced thinly enough to sneak a vegetable past a child's palate. But if you're over 12 ...

Adults should head straight for the back page of the menu and consider the Rotisserie Chicken served with flavorful mashed potatoes and perfectly crunchy green beans. The red trout had a lively flavor, crusted in pecans and dolloped with a tomato-date tapenade. Two Louisiana-inspired dishes -- a chicken and andouille gumbo and crawfish touffe -- share the Entrees menu with a Cuban-style beef brisket. We tried the latter and found it tasty and not overly spicy, despite the ancho chili paste. Flame-eaters among us were disappointed but more temperate palates were pleased.

Whether you select one of these entrees or opt for a pasta dish like veggie lasagna or cannelloni, you'll have no trouble finding an appropriate and reasonably priced wine to enjoy. With the exception of Roederer Champagne and two ports, every wine was under $40; some very drinkable wines can be yours for $20. Add that to the entree price range of $6.95 to $13.95, and a night at Del's Beli will seem more like a visit to a friendly neighborhood joint than a wallet-whomping splurge.


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