It’s a Friday night in Lower Manhattan, on the first Shabbath that truly feels like fall. 38 Prince Street looks as if it must have been a townhouse in a previous life. Now, with scant light shining through the foggy windows, and a locked, unmarked door, it looks almost haunted. I wonder if I have the right address.
Soon the door opens, and the group of a dozen or so people that have congregated outside on this dark street is invited into City Grit, vintage shop by day and pop-up restaurant space by night. We are seated at long, dark wooden tables surrounded by the detritus of the store: old medical posters, worn wooden boxes and mason jars full of wild flowers, all given a warm hue by candles and soft low-wattage light bulbs.
Over the next half-hour, 60 people trickle in. The Shabbath dinner is off to a late start, but no one seems to mind as we greet our dining companions, some of whom have traveled from as far as Canada and California to fress on nine courses of Jewish fare prepared by chefs from some of the country’s foremost Jewish restaurants: Mile End Deli, Russ and Daughters and Kutsher’s Tribeca, in New York; Kenny and Zuke’s, in Portland, Ore.; Saul’s in Berkeley, Calif.; and Wise Sons in San Francisco.
The first dinner of its kind, which is part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival, kicks off a weekend of events centered on Jewish food, organized by Noah Bernamoff, owner of nouveau deli Mile End.
The driving force behind the meal, Bernamoff told me a few days before the dinner, is to answer the question, “Is there some direction and future for Jewish food that’s not just nostalgia?” He and the other chefs respond through culinary discourse in the form of a series of sophisticated plates that challenge diners to reconcile their conceptions of Jewish fare with what appears before them. “[The] flavors represent a broader scope of ideas,” he added.
That evening, the room is hushed as Bernamoff marches in wearing a long black apron, grinning and carrying a beautifully braided challah. His excitement is palpable.
“This [evening] isn’t a religious ceremony but a cultural one; it’s the reason we all do this every day; it’s about the entire movement of new Jewish food,” he says as he introduces the other chefs.
After a quick Hamotzi and Kiddush, a steady stream of dishes and wine seemed to march into the dining room for the next three hours, creating a Shabbath dinner like no other. To begin, small individual baking sheets of appetizers by Russ and Daughters appear before us, featuring a delicate but flavorful roll of buckwheat blini, stuffed with a lightly smoked trout mousse topped with an exquisite pile of orange-orbed French trout roe.
Next, a reinterpretation of gefilte fish in a course dubbed “Gefilte Fish for the Ages,” for which a small sardine has been stuffed with herbed gefilte fish and served warm with a delicate pickled beet. “This is a gefilte fish my grandmother would’ve sent back,” jokes the James Beard Foundation’s vice president, Mitchell Davis, who is sitting across from me. After tasting it, he adds that gefilte fish, in its original form, was ground fish stuffed into a fish skin, different — but not entirely so — from what we are eating. The plate captures one of the evening’s themes: Despite the haute presentation, many of the dishes are an homage to recipes that date back generations.