Pop quiz: What was the Dreyfus Affair?
If you’re thinking of the 19th-century case of a Jewish army captain falsely convicted of treason — and a pivotal moment in France’s history — you’re right.
But a different Dreyfus affair — lower-case “A” — is unfolding in Toronto, where an ambitious young chef named Zach Kolomeir has opened a tiny bistro that tips a toque to both French and Jewish food.
On the seasonal menu in this eight-table hotspot: Roasted chicken with chopped cucumbers and cubed salami; veal tongue, cooked with French technique but with an Israeli apricot amba sauce; hand-caught Newfoundland cod with tzimmes-inspired carrots; and beignets, stuffed with caviar and sour cream and dusted with dehydrated dill, fennel, and capers.
“The technique is French, but the idea behind it is very Jewish,” Kolomeir told the Forward. “There are lots of subtleties. We don’t want to classify ourselves as a Jewish restaurant — we’re a French restaurant — but with a Jewish deli influence, and Israeli influences here and there.”
Dreyfus’ fare reflects Kolomeir’s own background. He grew up in Montreal, “where the food has a lot to do with Jewish heritage,” he said. “Jewish tradition was part of my upbringing. The whole Duddy Kravitz/Jewish Montreal thing is dwindling, but still relevant.” A standout item on Dreyfus’ menu is a literal shout-out to that era; it’s the only place outside Montreal where I’ve seen karnatzel, a dried beef salami with origins in Hungary. Kolomeir picks them up from a Montreal charcuterie whenever he’s back home.
Montreal’s kaleidoscope of cultures also had an impact on Kolomeir’s food. “I’m not discrediting the fact that Toronto’s a major multicultural city, but it feels more sectored,” he said. “Montreal’s much smaller, so you’d have all these people of different ethnicities living in the same building. Even with the plethora of different people in Toronto, it doesn’t feel quite as connected.”
After a zig-zagging career that took him in and out of Montreal restaurant kitchens — and to the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, NY — Kolomeir became chef de cuisine at Montreal hipster-foodie temple Joe Beef. When his girlfriend, Carmelina Imola, chose University of Toronto for graduate school, Kolomeir decided to follow her westward. Still in school, she also manages Dreyfus’ dining room.
The restaurant’s struck a chord; the August issue of Toronto Life magazine proclaimed Dreyfus “Toronto’s best new bistro”. “There’s already considerable buzz about Dreyfus, and it’s easy to see why,” the magazine raved.
And about the name? “The Dreyfus Affair was one of those standout moments in Jewish history where we really saw what the kind of level to which anti-Semitism can go,” Kolomeir said. “It’s such an interesting point in Jewish history, especially in the late 1800s, when there was so much documentation about the case.”
Cheekily, the only text on Dreyfus’ Instagram page is “J’Accuse…!” — the title of Emile Zola’s famed open letter in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the beleaguered soldier.
Not everyone appreciates the references, Kolomeir said. “I’ve gotten emails about how I’m not doing the Dreyfus name justice, how I’m not cooking Alsatian French Jewish food,” Kolomeir said. “That’s important, but I want to cook seasonal French food. When I was coming up with a name, I wanted the place to be packed and busy. But I also wanted to respect the perseverance of Jewish people. And respect the history of French, Jewish, and European cooking.”