Two Oases in a Dreary Kosher Desert
‘God! The restaurants!” exclaims one of the characters in John Guare’s echt-Manhattan play “Six Degrees of Separation.” “New York has become the Florence of the 16th century. Genius on every corner.” The line is hyperbolic, but not by much. In the past two decades New York has become the greatest restaurant city in the world, indeed perhaps the greatest restaurant city there has ever been. As much as the flags arrayed before the United Nations, the city’s restaurants fly the colors of seemingly every nation in the world, offering innumerable permutations and fusions of the cuisines contained therein. For the New York restaurant-goer, nothing is lacking — that is, unless one happens to keep kosher.
Suddenly the vast magnificence of the world falls away, and the town becomes decidedly provincial.
With a handful of exceptions, New York’s kosher scene is a dreary round of overpriced steak houses, uninspired pizza and falafel joints, Old World delis and that longtime Jewish staple, Chinese restaurants. It is astonishing, in this day and age, that there isn’t a single good kosher Mexican restaurant to be found in New York, not to mention Vietnamese or Ethiopian or Peruvian or any of the other ethnic cuisines that in recent decades have given the city’s culinary life such color and dynamism.
What is the cause of this pitiful state of affairs? Does the dearth of good kosher restaurants owe to the expense involved in obtaining rabbinic certification or purchasing kosher ingredients? Might the reason lie with the inevitable downturn on Fridays and Saturdays, the busiest days of the restaurant week? Or is there, instead, an innate conservatism on the part of the Orthodox community itself, which is unwilling to patronize more adventurous establishments, or ones less intimately known? The problem certainly does not lie with the cuisines themselves, most of which could easily be adapted to conform to the kosher laws.
(This is, after all, what Jews around the world have been doing for time immemorial.)
Still, once in a while a restaurant appears that in some way challenges the kosher orthodoxy; two of them, of relatively recent vintage, are noted below. Each, as it happens, identifies itself as a “cafe,” but beyond this — and, of course, their adherence to the kosher laws — the similarities end. One of the restaurants is located in Manhattan, the other in Brooklyn. One is ethnic in orientation; the other is not. One’s food is complex, while the other’s is simple. One of them caters primarily to the Orthodox community; the other does not. Each, though, provides a glimmer of hope in a generally bad time. Each is a welcome reminder that keeping kosher need not condemn one to a lifetime of bad restaurant meals.
THE MADRAS CAFE
79 Second Ave.
(at Fifth Street), Manhattan
1 p.m. to 10 p.m., daily
Aside from Chinese, Indian is the cuisine that has proven itself most amenable to kosher dining. In recent years several kosher Indian restaurants have opened up in the area that has come to be known as Curry Hill, on Lexington Avenue in the upper 20s. For outstanding kosher Indian food, though, you would do best to head farther downtown, to the more venerable outpost of Indian restaurants clustered around Sixth Street in the East Village. In this neighborhood there is but a single kosher Indian restaurant, the Madras Cafe, but this one is more than sufficient. It is not only the best of the kosher Indian restaurants; it may well be the best inexpensive Indian restaurant in the city.
The Madras Cafe specializes in the food of the southern tip of India, a geographically isolated region with a distinct cuisine that evolved over millennia. Compared to the cooking of northern India (which, like that of southern Italy and the Chinese province of Canton, mistakenly came to be seen as the cooking of the country as a whole), south Indian cuisine includes many dishes largely unknown to Americans; these are ably represented on the Madras Cafe’s menu. Among the most interesting are the savory lentil doughnuts called medu vada ($3.95), which strikingly resemble old-fashioned doughnuts, though flecked with chopped curry leaves. The doughnuts are made by soaking white lentils until they are very soft, then grinding them into a soft paste and deep-frying them in hot oil. At the Madras Cafe, the medu vada are all about the contrast of textures: shatteringly crisp on the outside, inside unexpectedly soft and cakey. They are served with a coconut chutney and a moderately spicy lentil sauce called sambar, for dipping.
Somewhat more substantial are the utthappams ($7.95), which are identified on the menu as “Indian-style pizzas” but are much more akin to large pancakes. Here the batter is made from a combination of ground rice, lentils and yellow split peas, left to soak until soft and then fried on a griddle. My favorite is the adai, which are generously studded with finely chopped red onion, cilantro, curry leaves, ginger and, for a bit of heat, black mustard seeds, “crackled” by frying in hot oil until very pungent. Like the medu veda, the utthappams are accompanied by the ubiquitous coconut chutney and sambar.
Though the fried foods are among the most unusual and interesting on the menu, most of the Madras Cafe’s dishes are vegetable preparations. (The restaurant is strictly vegetarian, with only a few dishes made with dairy products.) Many of the entrees will be familiar to patrons of Indian restaurants — saag paneer, potato and cauliflower bhaji, and various vegetable curries — but others will not be and are well worth exploring.
Among them is the baby eggplant ($8.95), served in a rich, fruity sauce of sour tamarind (like cilantro and curry leaves, tamarind is a staple flavoring of the cuisine), sweetened with the unrefined sugar called jaggery and sharply punctuated with fenugreek seeds. Another excellent dish, rather more common but here especially good, is the channa masal ($7.95), chickpeas simmered in a hearty, gingery curry sauce. This is masterly cooking; the use of fresh ingredients, the judicious application of heat and the delicate balancing of a complex palette of spices produces a clarity of flavor sadly lacking in most of the downtown Indian restaurants.
The Madras Cafe has been open since 1997. Its owner, Sridhar Rathnam, admitted to me recently that his business is significantly down since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that while he has been hopeful, he is no longer certain that he will be able to keep the restaurant open. The shuttering of these doors is a prospect too gloomy to contemplate. This restaurant is one of the city’s little gems, and we would be the poorer were its brilliance lost.
1111 Avenue K (at Coney Island Avenue), Brooklyn
7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fri.
Just around the corner from the chaotic artery of Coney Island Avenue, with its double-parked cars and block upon block bedizened with the awnings of appliance and auto-supply stores, Cafe K offers a relaxed, stylish haven for Midwood’s sizeable Orthodox community. It has been open since 1999, and in that time word has obviously gotten around, because the place is almost always busy.
At Cafe K the main attraction is the fish, which is delivered fresh each morning from the Fulton Fish Market. As the selections will vary from day to day, the restaurant uses no menus; the day’s selections are instead recited at the table by one of the young, friendly wait staff. (The varieties generally include halibut, salmon, tuna, trout and tilapia, and range in price from $7.95 to $12.95.) The fish is prepared in the simplest and, to my mind, most appealing of methods: grilled with just a little olive oil. The grilling here is nothing short of perfect, with a hint of char on the outside, offering a slightly bitter counterpoint to the soft creaminess of the fish. It is a bracing reminder of the glories offered by a minimalist approach to food, as long as one can rely on the quality of the ingredients at hand. Though rice or french fries are also available, the best side dish (which comes free with the entree) is a baked Yukon Gold potato, halved and then lightly grilled, providing a bit of extra flavor and a kind of tonal harmony with the main dish.
If you are not a fan of fish, there is no need to go elsewhere; Cafe K also features several types of pasta, each cooked pleasingly al dente, with sauces including pesto, marinara, vodka, primavera and an especially light cream sauce with mushrooms. In either case, with fish or pasta it is advisable to start the meal off with one of the very good salads — they are as impeccably fresh as the fish — including a Greek salad ($6) lush with briny olives and vibrant cherry tomatoes, and a Caesar salad with a wonderfully garlicky dressing. As accompaniment, try a slushy frozen lemonade ($2.75), on its own or blended with either strawberry or fresh mint. The desserts, it must be said, are nothing special; let a biscotti and a good espresso suffice.
Cafe K is everything that a kosher restaurant should be and all too often isn’t: a purveyor of fresh, sophisticated, reasonably priced food in comfortable, contemporary surroundings.
No matter what mood I arrive in, by the time I leave I’m always feeling happy — and for any restaurant, kosher or otherwise, there can be no higher achievement than that.