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Opening the restaurant called Jack’s Wife Freda gave husband-and-wife owners Dean and Maya Jankelowitz the opportunity to translate their South African (his) and Israeli (hers) Ashkenazi Jewish heritage for the skinny-jeans set — to wit: fish again, this time croquettes made with the smoked whitefish more ordinarily found on an appetizing platter, here enrobed in panko, then fried to a shattering crispness; luscious matzo balls enriched with duck fat and floating on a resplendent mahogany broth, and crispy chicken giblets brightened with mildly spicy pirri pirri sauce.
“In the end we all go back to the foods of our childhood,” said Jankelowitz. “I love Katz’s as much as the next guy, but the food needed a twist.”
Noah Bernamoff agrees. At his Brooklyn deli and restaurant, Mile End, Bernamoff gained recognition for his sandwiches. When he looked to expand to dinner service, he tried out the original, one-pot versions of deli standards like roast chicken and sweetbreads, then analyzed and tweaked. “You’ve got to be critical, too,” said Bernamoff. The result is dishes like tender stuffed cabbage featuring lamb, barley and a mint-and-pistachio pesto in lieu of the usual beef and rice.
Still, there are limits to innovation. Though Bernamoff himself is neither religious nor kosher, “…we’re not going to wrap bacon around a matzo ball,” he said.
Jewish culture expert and Forward columnist Jenna Weisman Joselit sees the return to schmaltz as an expression of the current ’60s zeitgeist expressed in shows like “Mad Men.” “It’s almost a faux nostalgia for something they never experienced in the first place,” said Joselit, who also cites a desire of a younger generation to express Jewish identity without committing to religious practice. Call it, if you will, shedding the yoke in favor of the yolk.
Sometimes, the trend has a slow-food feel. On a Sunday night in early March, Brooklyn’s young fooderati gathered to celebrate a new business-cum-movement, the Gefilteria, which seeks to recreate a “carp-in-the-bathtub” aesthetic of times gone by. In a packed room they sipped brilliant pink, ginger-and-vodka spiked kvass, a sort of fermented-beet kombucha, as they nibbled on sauerkraut, black-and-white cookie sticks and gefilte fish made with whitefish, salmon and pike sourced from sustainable purveyor Wild Edibles. The three founders, all in their 20s, are planning a roving pushcart to peddle their wares at hipster-haven food fairs like the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg.
Tapas entrepreneur Alex Raij (Tia Pol, Txikito, El Quinto Pino) is using her soon-to-open Brooklyn venture, La Vara, to explore the intersection of cultures that defined Moorish food: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. “I can easily see where the Jews and Moors left a distinct imprint on Spanish cuisine,” said Raij, whose menu will include the chickpea stew cocido, one of Spain’s national dishes that can trace its roots back to long-cooking hamin, or Sabbath stew — though Raij’s version will omit both the traditional Sephardic hard-boiled eggs and the pork products found today in most Spanish versions.
Like most of the new crop of chefs and foodies, Raij is embracing an unapologetic instinct to blend the humble Jewish roots of times gone by into very current ventures. “For the younger generations of cooks and eaters, it’s no longer about fitting in or grabbing the brass ring,” said restaurant consultant Wolf.
“We’re embracing our heritage but in a way my generation can relate to,” added Gefilteria co-founder Jeffrey Yoskowitz. “Bring back the schav!”
Adeena Sussman is the restaurant critic for Manhattan magazine. Her writing has appeared in Food and Wine, Gourmet, Fodors, Sunset and Hadassah.
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