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In talking to Solomonov, one gets the sense that his primary interest with Citron and Rose is the culinary exploration of a dormant cuisine ripe for revival, a step right in line with the current zeitgeist of the American culinary community.
“All of our restaurants have limitations based on their concept. Why should this one be any different?” he said. “We found that the closer we adhered to our original idea, the less restricted we felt.”
That philosophy is proved in dishes like an appetizer of escabeche, in which chunks of mackerel are lightly bathed in vinegar and come resting on wisps of waffle-like, crisp potato gaufrettes. Fluke schnitzel is breaded in challah crumbs and poppy seeds to winning effect. The sholet stars a long-braised lamb shank served whole and accented with tender flageolet beans, slivers of haricots verts and dense, almost sausage-like stuffed derma (kishke) virtually unrecognizable from the oil-soaked substance that lands in countless Sabbath slow cookers. And yes, that’s whipped schmaltz in the bread basket.
Since the restaurant’s opening, in mid-November 2012, seats have been hard to come by and must be booked a month in advance. The Sunday night I spent there, the crowd was mixed, with as many miniskirts as sheitels. Solomonov says patrons are coming from as far away as New York, and even California, to sample his cuisine — and Philadelphians are renting Zipcars to venture in from downtown. To adhere to kosher laws, the restaurant is open only five days a week, with possible plans to open on Saturday nights.
Some are questioning whether the restaurant can survive being open just five days a week, but luckily it has deep pockets to see it through its early days.
Around the same time that Solomonov became serious about the project, a local Orthodox money manager and philanthropist named David Magerman was looking to open a kosher eatery in the neighborhood. Though his sights were originally set on a kosher Subway sandwich franchise, Magerman quickly shifted gears once he met Solomonov and Cook. (Since the restuarant is kosher, the observant Magerman technically owns the restaurant).
The Philly fooderati community seems cautiously bullish, as well. “Michael could cook telephone books and make them taste good — and [Cook] is a very smart man,” said Craig LaBan, restaurant critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. LaBan cites the Main Line’s dearth of quality restaurants as an advantage. “Customers Jewish and otherwise will try anything they’re serving,” LaBan added. “If they can nail price [the average entrée at Citron and Rose is about $26], ambience and food in one location, they have a good chance at success.”
Magerman says that another challenge is conquering the perception that a kosher restaurant couldn’t possibly meet the levels of service, ambiance and food found as its nonsupervised counterparts. “There’s this long-standing idea that if you have restrictions, you have to tolerate mediocrity. We’re trying to prove otherwise.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether Citron and Rose can outlast the hype and become a mainstay in Philadelphia and, perhaps, realize the full potential of what a kosher restaurant can be.
“Ashkenazi Jewish food wasn’t always just about the lowest common denominator,” culinary historian Marks told me. “There’s something admirable about seeing how far it can be taken.”
Adeena Sussman is a food writer living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Food and Wine, Gourmet, Fodors, Sunset and Hadassah.