Ramen Noodles, Meet the Matzo Ball

Chef Couples Are Paving the Way for Jewish Fusion at Shalom Japan, El Nosh and the Avenue Delicatessen

Israeli-Style Ink: Shalom Japan’s Tuna Tataki places perfectly seared tuna atop jet-black tahini.
alice gao/shalom japan
Israeli-Style Ink: Shalom Japan’s Tuna Tataki places perfectly seared tuna atop jet-black tahini.

By Leah Koenig

Published December 18, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the bathroom at Shalom Japan, a new Jewish-Japanese fusion restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hangs a framed poster of the famous 1960s advertisement for Levy’s rye bread featuring a young Japanese boy holding a sandwich with the slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” Outside in the dining room, the menu at Shalom Japan, crafted by husband-and-wife chef team Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi, mirrors the ad’s culture-melding vibe.

Take the Sake Kasu Challah, a petite braided loaf made with sake yeast and served alongside a richly flavored spread of salted butter and pureed raisins that have been plumped in Japanese rice wine. Then there’s the Tuna Tataki: squares of seared tuna served atop a velvety, ink-black sesame paste that is reminiscent of tahini. Comfort food lovers, meanwhile, can tuck into a bowl of matzo ball ramen, which throws a tangle of Japanese noodles into the traditional Jewish chicken broth with one floating matzo ball.

“We wanted to develop a place that reflected each of us and our backgrounds,” said Israel, whose Jewish food credentials include a celebrated stint as chef at artisanal delicatessen Mile End, in Brooklyn.

They are not the only ones. Five miles outside of Philadelphia in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania, chef Laura Frangiosa merges Jewish and Italian cuisines at her restaurant, The Avenue Delicatessen. “I am Italian, but I grew up eating in Jewish delis,” she said. Meanwhile, her husband and business partner, Josh Skaroff, is Jewish. “He is my chief taste tester,” she said.

Tokyo Challah: The petite loaf at Shalom Japan is made with sake yeast and served with rice wine raisin butter.
alice gao/shalom japan
Tokyo Challah: The petite loaf at Shalom Japan is made with sake yeast and served with rice wine raisin butter.

Open since May, The Avenue focuses mostly on serving Italian and Jewish staples side-by-side on the same menu. The challah French toast and house-cured corned beef on rye, for example, rub elbows with classic chicken parmesan and a mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad. But a handful of the dishes wade decidedly into fusion territory.

“Our Reuben Arancini are a huge hit,” Frangiosa said, describing the traditional Italian fried rice balls, which she stuffs with cubes of corned beef and Swiss cheese instead of mozzarella (à la Reuben sandwiches) and tops with Russian dressing instead of marinara. Her Jewish Wedding Soup, meanwhile, floats matzo balls in a bowl of the otherwise Italian-style meatball and escarole soup.

“Culturally, being Jewish and being Italian in America feel very similar,” Frangiosa said. “They are all about big food, big voices and big family. So it made perfect sense to combine the two traditions.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic, Craig LaBan, agreed, calling Frangiosa’s cooking, “100 percent from the heart — with a side of Russian dressing.”

Across the country in Los Angeles, chefs Eric Greenspan and Roberto Treviño — who became fast friends while appearing on The Food Network show, The Next Iron Chef in 2009 — launched a Latin/Jewish-inspired food truck called El Ñosh. “Greeny and I are like brothers,” Treviño said. “We were joking around one night about Jewish- and Latin-inspired dishes, when we realized they could actually be really great.”

They launched last fall with a series of pop-up dinners in New York, Miami and Puerto Rico, serving up a menu of inventive dishes like pastrami and dill pickle croquetas, knishes stuffed with arroz con pollo and fried churros sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds. The food truck, which will officially launch in early 2014, will offer variations on the theme: yucca latkes with mango crema, mole brisket burritos and a smoked salmon and cream cheese quesadilla. “We were blown away by how much people loved the concept,” said Treviño. “People would giggle at first, but when they ate the food, they had this amazing reaction.”

These days, Treviño, a California native, is primarily based in Puerto Rico, where he is the owner of four restaurants. But that has not stopped him and Greenspan from scheming about opening brick-and-mortar versions of their “Latin Delicatessen” in several cities including Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas and Miami.

The menus at these new Jewish fusion restaurants vary widely, though on the Jewish side of things, they tend to skew heavily towards the foods of Eastern Europe and the delicatessen — dishes that are most widely recognized as “Jewish” by American diners. The restaurants are also, across the board, not kosher, celebrating the cultural aspects of Jewish cuisine instead of the ritual. As Israel put it, blending two cuisines is already an experiment without “opening another can of worms.”

So why does Jewish fusion seem to be hitting its stride now? With Jewish communities thriving for so many centuries across six continents, now is hardly the first time Jewish food has tangoed with other cuisines. Bagels and lox, for example, is complete fusion cuisine — a mash up that combined the Jewish love of cured fish and bread with the Scandinavian cured salmon that was available in Manhattan at the turn of the century.

For one thing, thanks to the rise of nouveau delicatessens, Jewish cuisine is more visible and exciting than it has been in decades — both within the Jewish community and beyond it. But the primary thing that ties these restaurants together is not simply trendiness, but love. Whether it’s the romance of a married couple, or the bro-mance of two chefs, Shalom Japan, The Avenue Delicatessen, and El Ñosh were all born from their owners’ desire to connect through cuisine. And diners seem delighted to support the cause.

Leah Koenig, the Forward’s monthly food columnist, is a writer and cookbook author. Her new book, “Modern Jewish Cooking,” will be published in 2015. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.