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How the Peninsula's pastrami experts at The Refuge were inspired by French fine dining

Uploaded: May 16, 2022

The Toasted Slaw #19, a sandwich with pastrami, cold Swiss cheese and 'crazy Russian' dressing on toasted rye. Photo courtesy Mark Helsel.

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To support our local dining scene, Peninsula Restaurant Week is back for its second year May 13-21 featuring special dishes from your favorite eateries. For the final story in our Q&A series with participating restaurants, we caught up with The Refuge, which has locations in Menlo Park, San Carlos and San Mateo.

The Refuge aims to serve the best of Belgium, New York and Philadelphia through its extensive beer list, hand-sliced pastrami sandwiches and gooey cheesesteaks. Led by the husband-and-wife team of Matt Levin and Melanie Roth along with executive chef Michael Greuel, The Refuge reflects Levin's passion for pastrami. However, it unexpectedly draws inspiration from Michelin-starred kitchens in Paris as much as it does from New York City. The Refuge's first location opened in San Carlos in 2008, followed by Menlo Park in 2013 and a space in Hillsdale Mall in 2021.

Wondering how French haute cuisine influenced The Refuge and how they make pastrami they're willing to put up against titans like Katz's and Langer's? We spoke with Levin to learn more.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Peninsula Foodist: It was a little surprising to see on your website that the roots of The Refuge were strongly tied to French cuisine and your kitchen experiences in France. Could you tell me a little more about that?

Matt Levin: It's a good question. It doesn't seem like it makes sense. I grew up Jewish, I'm still observant. But back then, especially in the ‘90s, I was a Francophile. I had gone to France before and was just transfixed. I couldn't believe that people cooked like this.

Also, I went to New Orleans and ate at K-Paul's back when Paul Prudhomme was still alive. (Like The Refuge), it was a first-come, first-served type of place. I really got into New Orleans-style cooking. I bought Paul Prudhomme's "Louisiana Cookery," and I made everything. It's a perfect cookbook. I learned a lot about French cooking through that lens.

My wife was working for a French company, and she got transferred to France. I worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and learned French. The problem with those kitchens is that they're very militaristic, they're hard. You can't make a mistake. The chives got to be like, half a millimeter. And then if one gets on the edge of the plate, you have to replate.

It wears on people and it wore on me. And I didn't eat that type of food. I was eating duck confit, a lot of charcuterie, but I never tasted anything as good as really good pastrami. And I'm like, "Why don't they have that? It's very similar. It's a cured meat."

When I came back to the United States, I was thinking, there's a place for the casual connoisseur out there. So that's how The Refuge came about. There's actually (a restaurant named) The Refuge in France. It was such a cool name, because a restaurant (becomes a refuge) over the years.

Peninsula Foodist: I can share some of those experiences. I lived in France and I staged for a month in the kitchen in France. It was at Alain Ducasse's cooking school. I didn't get to touch the food, but I got yelled at plenty.

Matt Levin: Yeah, Ducasse was a heavy hitter. I was into Joël Robuchon. I just thought, this guy changed the world by making mashed potatoes with so much butter. So I was really into things that looked simple but were very technique-driven.

I staged at Chez Panisse, and it didn't really work out for me. I need to manipulate my food. With pastrami, you do a lot of things to that meat to get it to the table. You have to impose your will on it.

Peninsula Foodist: Could you speak a bit more about the pastrami-making process?

Matt Levin: The process starts with the cut of meat. We use the beef plate, which is from the beef belly. We use the heart of the navel. There's this little corner that's perfectly marbled. It's very hard to get right now. It's used for hot pot a lot.

It's all in the brine. What makes ours different is the freshness of the spices. Garlic, you can use a few different types of sugars: brown, cane, beet so you're adding different dimensions, not just sweetness.

After three to five days, it's rubbed with coriander and black pepper, that's traditional. We catch all the drippings, we make what Guy Fieri (who featured The Refuge on "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives”) called a lacquer and after we trim, we'll dip the meat back in. We put very little smoke on it, you don't want to be like Texas barbecue. The rest of the game is steaming until tender.

Peninsula Foodist: People have really strong opinions about their regional foods like pastrami and cheesesteaks. Do you ever feel any sort of pressure making them?

Matt Levin: Yeah, I would never have put pastrami on the menu if I didn't think it could compete with the big boys.

I love it when people can have a lively discussion about food. People should be passionate about their regional foods because a lot of them don't make it out to the West Coast. I provide protection for the East Coast out here, it's safe in (The Refuge). I try to do things as authentically as possible.

Peninsula Foodist: Is there anything else you want the diners coming for Restaurant Week to know about?

Matt Levin: I made the pastrami combo (half of a pastrami sandwich, fries and a beer) our special because I don't think the pastrami market's saturated yet. There are still people who come in and have never had pastrami. I want guests to be open to a snapshot of what The Refuge can offer.

You have to really travel to get the stuff we serve. It's the ultimate eclectic restaurant even though we employ classical technique. You have the opportunity to try all these things in their authentic state in one place: Belgian beers, pastrami, house-ground burgers and cheesesteaks. The meat we use for pastrami isn't getting any cheaper, but it's worth preserving.

The Refuge, 1143 Crane St., Menlo Park; 650-319-8197, Instagram: @refuge_menlopark. Additional locations in San Carlos and San Mateo.

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