With pastrami from Katz’s, a pickle from Pickle Guys and a bialy from Kossar’s, this twist on the cubano is a reflection of its Lower East Side roots. Photograph courtesy of The Comfort.
There’s a new tenant at 399 Grand Street.
The onetime site of Noah’s Ark, the Lower East Side’s last full-service kosher restaurant, is now home to The Comfort diner, which opened in February after a bitter neighborhood dispute over whether another kosher eatery should occupy the space.
The Comfort’s far from kosher. But if neighbors feared a loss of Jewish character, the restaurant’s proving them wrong. In fact, Ira Freehof, the diner’s ebullient owner, launched The Comfort with a specialty sandwich called the Jewbano — an amalgam of foods from legendary Lower East Side purveyors that includes Katz’s pastrami, a Kossar’s Bialys bulka, and a Pickle Guys sour on the side. Turkey, Swiss cheese and mustard top off this treyf-yet-haimish twist on the classic Cubano.
“I was so nervous about the name that I emailed my rabbi,” Freehof told the Forward over steaming coffee on a frigid, snowy afternoon as customers drifted in and out of the warm restaurant. “He said, ‘It’s in good humor — it’s OK.’” Good thing he did — the sandwich is a heaping wonder, the luscious meats playing beautifully off pillowy-crunchy bread.
“A couple of people emailed, ‘Shame on you — it’s anti-Semitic’,” Freehof says. “And I replied, ‘Actually, it’s a celebration’.” In its own way, so is the restaurant, whose menu mashes up diner classics like mac & cheese and burgers with updates like grilled Moroccan fish and a quinoa-kale bowl.
Though The Comfort is only the second restaurant Freehof’s operating, he’s hardly a newbie. Comfort Diner, his first spot, has packed in Midtown-Manhattan crowds for 19 years. For a decade before that, he worked as manager and director of operations for high-profile New York eateries such as Steak Frites, City Crab, Chat ‘n’ Chew, Isabella’s and the Coconut Grill.
Other expansions of Comfort Diner did not survive; a Chelsea location fell victim to redevelopment. But Freehof is sanguine about his downtown prospects.
“What I want to offer is a really good bridge from what the Lower East Side has been to what it is now — and what it’s becoming,” he says. “So the lifetime resident upstairs can have a $6 breakfast, and the people who live in the neighborhood can eat and schmooze for $10, and people who work around here can hang out when they leave the office.” Bagels and bialys from Kossar’s — served with a schmear, of course — offer another hat-tip to the ‘hood.
Freehof claims he was unaware of the controversy around the space when he signed a lease for 399 Grand last March. As the Forward reported at the time, Long Island-based kosher chain Holy Schnitzel had been the presumed frontrunner for the space but lost to Freehof in a vote by the board of the Seward Park Co-Op, which owns the building. Holy Schnitzel’s backers had included heavy-hitters like now-disgraced New York State legislator Sheldon Silver; a petition for a kosher restaurant in the spot also garnered over 1,000 signatures. But Freehof’s pitch for a more inclusive spot won over the co-op.
Freehof gutted the Noah’s Ark space, investing “several hundred thousand dollars” in a retro-modern space with turquoise vinyl booths, artfully tiled floors and a striking iron-red quartzite bar. The investment seems like a canny one, though. With hundreds of thousands of mixed-use square feet set for construction on the site of the Essex Street Market across the street, The Comfort’s location should prove a very lucrative asset through the life of his 15-year lease.
In the meantime, Freehof’s still getting The Comfort warmed up. “We’re going to have outdoor seating. We’ll have a Polar Bear outdoor brunch for charity the first Sunday of every year. We’re just getting started, and we’re going to have fun with this,” he says.
“Food to me means celebratory meals my grandmothers would cook, or that first glass of wine on Passover. It’s what brings people together, and nothing makes me happier,” he says. “I’m not a dentist who thinks it’s fun to own a restaurant. This is what I do.”
Michael Kaminer is a frequent contributor to the Forward.