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Russell it up

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Published 12/12/2007

Ben Hall and Jason Murphy recently bought Russell Street Deli, a long-running and popular breakfast and lunch spot in Detroit's Eastern Market. On market Saturdays, when many shoppers drive in from the suburbs, the eatery often has a line out the door — even in a light rain. The place was even packed on a recent weekday afternoon, proof of the restaurant's popularity and its sterling reputation for quality. Year in and out, the deli has delighted diners with hearty sandwiches and filling soups that warm chilled marketgoers.

Metro Times: Russell Street Deli has become one of the fixtures of the Eastern Market restaurant scene, along with the venerable Roma Café, Bert's, Vivio's and the recently revived Butcher's Inn. Was its legendary status part of your impetus for purchasing it?

Ben Hall: My partner, Jason, and I have known Bob, our predecessor, since '95. We really owe it to Bob [Cerrito]. He's the one who built it into an institution. He was one of the first people to have a nonsmoking restaurant in Detroit. That was kind of trendsetting — and also the fact that he was fresh, regional and seasonal. For us now, we have so many great people around us like Avalon Bakery. They help us and mentor us. We have come into a well-functioning system that already has so much good will.

MT: You're a musician and a painter. Do you feel that there is a link between art, music and food?

Hall: Yeah, a lot of it has to do with the way things are arranged. Studying composition, everything's composed of something and when the improvisation part of it comes in, you never know when you're going to get hit with shifting tempos, the pitch of the customers, especially when you're cooking. I think that's the easiest thing for me. As a percussionist, you have to have all these independent thoughts about the mechanics of what you're going to do, especially when you have seven or eight things going at once, trying to tie them all in.

MT: You're comparing the different percussion instruments to the different dishes that are cooking?

Hall: Different dishes, different ingredients. You can break it down either way: micro or macro. For me, I see it a lot. It definitely gives me plenty to think about in terms of speed and efficiency and accuracy. When you're studying mechanics, you think about those things. I see them all the time; myself, my employees. How can we get more efficient? And the synergistic aspects of it. A good band makes good music. When it's happening, it's happening. I have a great crew. When I'm on my game and my employees are on their game, it's perfect. My partner is the same way. We work so well together.

MT: What changes do you and Jason have planned for your restaurant? Sometimes, the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," applies to restaurants. I fondly remember the busy Clam Shop on East Grand Boulevard. When it was sold, the new owners redecorated and it lost its charm and closed shortly afterward.

Hall: Basically, we're just building on the things that Bob already had in place; anything where we can be even fresher, more seasonal, more regional. We are focusing on the "farm to table" movement. We're trying to establish more ties to the farmers in southeast Michigan so that we truly are supporting the Michigan economy. Unfortunately, we have a relatively short growing season. Today we have a peanut butter-acorn squash soup, an African soup. The peanut butter is roasted in Michigan. We are very interested in supporting whatever renaissance or revival is happening in the city and the state. It's important to be a part of that economy.

MT: Eastern Market is going through some changes. How do you see this impacting your business?

Hall: The renovation of Shed 1 has taken some of our parking, which is a bump for us, but people want newer and fresher. Over time, as they're doing the improvements, it can't be anything but positive.

MT: When did you start cooking?

Hall: My dad was in the meat business. I started working with him at Allied Packing when I was 10. He worked in the meat business for 45 years, just about everywhere. My mom owned a bar on the southwest side, so I've had a knife in my hand since I was barely tall enough to see over the counter. My mom is still an excellent cook. My dad knew everything there was to know about meat. When I was a kid, he would cook a whole tenderloin. That was not heard of. That was a hundred-dollar piece of meat. I also worked for Brian Gallagher, who used to own Kyla's in Royal Oak. He's amazing, a master improviser. He thought so fast on his feet. I learned so much from him: No wasted motion. Talk about efficiency. He was a really great guy to work for while being very difficult to work for, but we wouldn't be here today without him.

Russell Street Deli is located at 2465 Russell in historic Eastern Market, Detroit; 313-567-2900.

Jeff Broder discusses food each month for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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