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by robert klein | April 24, 2012 | Food & Drink
Katz’s, the Old Testament of Jewish delis
Sloppy Judah from Sons of Essex
A modern house-made charcuterie platter from Kutsher’s
Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills, circa 1951
Old tradition meets the new edition: Knish from Yonah Schimmel (LEFT) and crispy latkes with caviar from Kutsher’s Tribeca
Could it be a renaissance, a culinary Lazarus, the latest food trend among the young and fashionable? Jewish cooking. Such fare, stereotypically thought of as heavy, unhealthful, a gastronomical death trip, may be making a comeback—just in time for this month’s Passover celebration.
Zach Kutsher is the scion of Borscht Belt royalty. No longer family owned, the Kutsher’s Country Club is a shell of its old wonderful self, casino gambling having failed to come to the region. He has instead opened a restaurant that features Jewish cooking with an elegant twist called Kutsher’s Tribeca. He calls it a bistro; it’s certainly not a deli, with its hip, retro-minimal furnishings and James Taylor music in the air.
Yes, there is excellent pastrami (cured by the house), whose smokiness evokes more Biloxi than Bucharest. There are unique combinations that meld Jewish food with other types, like the pickled herring two ways with pickled onions and cream, or every Jewish grandma’s favorite, wasabi, yuzu, and pepper. I had the potato latkes, which were tasty and petite—very petite. The portions are elegantly small and well presented in that upscale kind of way with lots of colorful drizzling and caviar— a contrast to Kutsher’s hotel, where the food came by the ton and the eating never ended.
Aesthetics in food presentation is important because certain traditional dishes can look unappetizing. Gelfilte fish, for example, is an acquired taste, and most Gentile guests at Passover seders politely peck before surreptitiously trying to give it to the cat under the table. Kutsher’s has solved this problem with an exquisitely plated Wild Halibut Gefilte Fish with beet and horseradish tartare, micro arugula, and parsley vinaigrette. If there’s a bread crumb in the dish, I didn’t see it.
Kutsher’s isn’t the only Manhattan establishment embracing and reimagining traditional Jewish cuisine. Bagel mecca Mile End recently crossed the East River from Brooklyn to a new shop on Bond Street in the East Village. And celebrities like the Knicks’ Jared Jeffries and model Jessica White have been spotted at Lower East Side establishment Sons of Essex.
Obviously some elements of Jewish food never left the restaurant scene, specifically the Jewish delicatessens, but they are increasingly rare. In my Bronx youth, when McDonald’s was a family in the next building not a global franchise, they were as ubiquitous as pizzerias. The waiters in these delis were known for their comedic insolence and curtness, juggling huge platters in one hand and memorizing the order, disdaining a pad. One can still get a taste of this at the legendary Katz’s on Houston Street (itself having a second coming thanks to the burgeoning nightlife scene on the Lower East Side), where the delicious meats are cut by hand and piled on rye bread that can really take it. But for the most part today, the word deli connotes any store with Boar’s Head baloney and lottery tickets.
About 10 years ago, I played the voice of God in the Hebrew National frankfurter commercials. Friends tell me I was unapproachable for awhile. Like so many actors before me, I had evidently taken the role a mite too seriously. In any case, the CEO of Hebrew National at the time told me that 20 years earlier there had been about 500 Jewishstyle restaurants in the New York region. That number has been reduced to 50. No doubt several factors played a role—shifting cultural dynamics and lifestyle changes in the pursuit of more longevity combined with the increasingly prevalent notion that a steady diet of boiled beef flanken will turn your arteries into the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. Also, the older generation of immigrant grandmothers has largely passed, and with it their style of cooking.
Much commercial Jewish cooking today is likely to be done by émigrés from Latin America using the recipes of émigrés from Warsaw and Vilnius. Ashkenazi, European Jewish cooking is the style most familiar to us. The Sephardic Jewish tradition springs from Spain and North Africa thanks to that anti-Semitic Queen Isabella, who expelled the Jews and Moors and bankrolled Christopher Columbus; their cuisine is heavy on fruits and nuts and reflects the warmer climate influence of the Middle East. Zach Kutsher and his executive chef, Mark Spangenthal, have taken traditional favorites along with some hybrids in hopes that a new generation will love their 21stcentury take on cuisine that has its roots in European antiquity. With delicious offerings like Milton’s short rib and brisket meatballs or wild mushroom and fresh ricotta kreplach, it’s no wonder we’ve survived more than 3,000 years. 186 Franklin St., 212-431-0606
photography by william BRIN SON ; food styling by mariana velasquez for big leo (opener); EVAN SUNG (CHARCUTERIE)