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A deli board of five different bite-sized dishes prepared by Wise Sons arrives, including a selection of nearly forgotten classics like p’tcha, a pickled calf’s hoof reinterpreted as a colorful tri-layered terrine; an incredibly rich and earthy helzel, which is chicken gizzard, heart and liver stuffed into fried chicken neck, and kishke, served as a schmaltz and matzo meal dumpling topped with a spicy green onion. The plate’s creative presentation thrusts the food into the center of conversation as everyone tries to match up hints of Old World flavors with modern ingredients and presentation.
Midmeal, I sneak down to the kitchen, where chefs from various restaurants are working together around a large metal table on one side of the kitchen, assembling bowls of deep mahogany beef broth with light but rich bone marrow infused matzo balls and fall greens.
The chefs who aren’t needed congregate on the opposite side of the kitchen, drinking whiskey from disposable Tupperware containers, chatting and snacking on gribenes, or fried chicken skin, that the team from Wise Sons carried in their backpacks on the plane ride from San Francisco for the helzel.
Upstairs in the dining room, diners float between tables, saying hello to friends and discussing the meal. As the poultry and meat courses approach, I yearn to be less full than I already am. Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zuke’s prepared a duck confit in Portland, which he shipped to New York and stuffed into cabbage rolls at Mile End’s commissary. The result, which is topped with duck cracklings and red pepper sauce, is like many of the evening’s dishes — simultaneously familiar and foreign.
The final savory course, by Kutsher’s Tribeca, is a superbly supple and flavorful lamb neck braised like brisket in a rice wine vinegar and served over a bed of kasha. The meat falls apart in my mouth, leaving a rich and slightly sweet finish, which is carried through to dessert. Bernamoff ends the meal with a deconstructed babka: pulled pieces of his stupendous challah on top of a lightly smoked streusel and topped with a citrus drizzle in a bowl whose sides are brushed with a thick chocolate mousse.
While not every dish throughout the evening sang — the p’tcha lacked flavor, the beautiful salad of bitter lettuces needed texture, a matzo ball packed too much salt and an amuse bouche of parsnip flan felt out of place — the chefs provided a resounding answer to Bernamoff’s question.
The next day, as I nibbled on a small bag of assorted traditional cookies handed out at the end of the night, I worried that the meal was an inimitable experience. Still, the conversations it had already started to provoke among chefs and Jewish food enthusiasts left me hopeful that they would carry on rippling out, taking the cuisine beyond the realm of nostalgia.