The Wisdom of Solomonov
Michael Solomonov didn’t exactly need a kosher restaurant in his portfolio. The Philadelphia chef already claimed an impressive string of successes, starting with Zahav, the Israeli-inspired restaurant he opened to great acclaim in 2008. Zahav begat Federal Donuts — which also sells fetish-worthy fried chicken — and Percy Street Barbecue, whose other-white-meat offerings might send a Jewish mother to shul to pray for the chef’s salvation.
And yet, a recent evening found the winner of a prestigious 2011 James Beard Award at the blonde-wood bar of his new kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose . Based on appearances, the space, decorated with rich-patterned fabrics accented with turquoise metallic flourishes, could compete with its downtown rivals. Bartenders mixed cocktails such as the Reb Roy (an admittedly tasty blend of Manischewitz and bourbon) and poured craft beers into glasses as patrons began to file in.
But Citron and Rose is not downtown. Rather, it is located in the Main Line hamlet of Bala Cynwyd, a prosperous and heavily Orthodox suburb 15 minutes from the seat of his downtown restaurant empire. “Would you like a soy latte?” Solomonov asked me as he pulled a chair up to the bar, which has an unfettered view of the open kitchen beyond. “I can definitely guarantee it’ll definitely be soy.”
The restaurant’s mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, black yarmulke crowning his head, stood at the back of the spacious kitchen. Words like “schmaltz” and “kishke” wafted through the air. There was nary a pat of butter or cream in sight (hence that soy-laced coffee). So what gave? Had Solomonov found religion?
The 34-year-old chef, who was born in Israel but raised in Pittsburgh, says no, and even a cursory glance at the menu, with dishes like chopped liver lollipops lavished with cherries, cocoa and rye, reveals that the food bears only a passing resemblance to your bubbe’s Shabbos table — not to mention the menus of many of the country’s most expensive kosher eateries. There are no maki rolls here. “Steak and sushi is mostly what you see in high-end kosher these days,” Solomonov said. “We may be able to feed all Jews because we’re kosher, but we’re not trying to please all the people all the time.”
Similar to restaurateurs like Noah Bernamoff at Brooklyn’s Mile End, Solomonov is reviving long-standing Jewish traditions like pickling vegetables, curing fish and making charcuterie, methods that Ashkenazim before them had perfected generations, even centuries, earlier. But he’s also applying the classical training he learned both at the New England Culinary Institute and under the tutelage of Philly chef Marc Vetri, and using seasonal produce and quality ingredients, hoping in the process to elevate kosher dining beyond the stigma of captive-audience cuisine.
“I’d been thinking about doing this concept for a while,” said Solomonov, his lean figure clad in jeans and chef’s whites. “We explored and tweaked the Sephardic side of things at Zahav,” he said. “It was time to pay our respects to the Eastern European food a lot of us grew up eating.”
A chance meeting two years ago with Jewish culinary historian Gil Marks at the Hazon Food Conference further sparked the chef’s imagination. Marks and Solomonov discussed the rich and varied history of Eastern European Jewish food. Among other revelations, Marks reported that cassoulet, a French meat-and-bean dish, could trace its origins to cholent; that the inventor of foie gras, Jean-Joseph Clause, received his livers from Alsatian Jews who raised geese, and that many of Europe’s premier pastry chefs were Jewish, since pastry production was a new avocation whose guild had not yet banned Jews from its ranks. “It really opened my eyes,” Solomonov said.
Before the restaurant opened, Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook took Yehuda Sichel, Citron and Rose’s 26-year-old chef de cuisine, to Budapest and Paris. There the trio feasted on smoked goose, charcuterie, pickled fish and sholet , a cholent derivative that is a national comfort food in Hungary. These and other Jewish-influenced European delicacies became an integral part of Citron and Rose’s menu.
Solomonov decided that rather than viewing kosher guidelines as an obstacle, he would look at them as an opportunity. Unlike other current upscale-kosher contenders such as New York’s Jezebel, where the founding chef has already left and the artwork features ironic paintings with iconic Jewish personalities, Citron and Rose seems to be based less on gimmickry and more on sound culinary principles.
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.