Matzo ball soup at Nolita’s most au courant café? Kreplach at Tribeca’s latest New York Times-reviewed eatery? Kasha varnishkes by iconic New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Union Square? You can stop rubbing your eyes: Jewish food is indeed having its New York makeover moment.
After years of watching other iconic immigrant cuisines burnished for a new generation (and even seeing Mediterranean-Israeli food beat them to the punch at places like Einat Admony’s Balaboosta), a group of young chefs, restaurateurs and food lovers are transforming traditional Jewish dishes into fare aimed to please modern palates of all persuasions.
Is the ascendance of haute-haimish grub a mere flash in the frying pan, or is there something deeper at play? Some are calling it an ephemeral trendlette, while others divine a deeper social significance, suggesting that the driving force is a desire to connect with the past in a meaningful way. One thing’s for certain: No matter where you fall in this debate, gefilte fish will never be the same again.
“It’s our most controversial menu item,” said Zach Kutsher of the version he offers at Kutsher’s Tribeca, the downtown restaurant inspired by his family’s legendary Borscht Belt resort of the same name. In the hands of chef Mark Spangenthal, the jarred, pike-in-gel specimen familiar to most American Jews has been reimagined as diced wild halibut bound with carrot and onion, shaped into small discs that the chef wraps in parchment paper and gently poaches in house-made fish stock. Served with a delicate beet-and-horseradish tartare, it’s a menu standout that represents the interplay of nostalgia and heightened culinary standards.
“Gefilte fish and quenelles (broth-simmered French dumplings) have met, and they seem to like each other,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who has been tracking industry trends for 30 years. “For one thing, with all due respect to my ancestors, any of these chefs is a better cook than my bubbe.”
Often, the revamped Jewish comfort foods reclaim techniques that skipped a generation or two as aspirational children of immigrants lost connection to the hard-work foodways of their ancestors. At Kutsher’s, the kreplach and knish doughs are house-made, as are the duck pastrami, beef tongue and chopped liver (capped with a crunchy sliver of gribenes) on the kosher-style charcuterie platter. In the East Village, Zucker Bakery owner Zohar Zohar, who spent years working in traditional French kitchens for renowned chefs including Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, is baking Fridays-only challah and yeast-risen babka influenced by her grandmother’s recipes.
Also in the East Village, at JoeDoe, Joe Dobias and his longtime girlfriend, Jill Schulster, have been serving “aggressive American” food, some with a decidedly Jewish pedigree, for nearly four years. To impress Shulster’s Jewish parents, the Irish-American Dobias began curing briskets. Now his menus include dishes like matzo brei with cilantro and spicy honey, as well as knaidlach nesting in a tomato-tomatillo sauce. Around the corner at JoeDough, their new sandwich shop, one of the most popular offerings is The Conflicted Jew, a chicken liver, onion and bacon sandwich on house-made challah.
Even award-winning greenmarket-centric restaurant, ABC Kitchen, is getting in on the game. Before it opened in 2010, chef/owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten tasked executive chef Dan Kluger with updating a dish he’d once sampled: kasha varnishkes. The new version cushions tender veal meatballs atop house-made egg noodles, punctuated with the surprising pop of toasted buckwheat grains. It’s now a signature dish that Kluger concedes will be hard to remove from the menu.