Nevermind the Brisket

You are probably as accustomed to walking past Tex-Mex, Thai-French and Pan-Asian restaurants as you are the neighborhood deli. But a “Cuban Reuben”? Don’t laugh, Jewish fusion may be coming to a Main Street near you. For a people defined by a diaspora for thousands of years, it was only a matter of time before Jewish food cross-pollinated. In America, when you think of Jewish cooking, you imagine matzoh ball soup, borscht and potato pancakes. But recently, a new and more self-consciously “Jewish-inspired” brand of dishes has emerged—both in upscale locales and local diners.

Some restaurants cater to a Jewish clientele, adjusting their menus during Passover to accommodate observant diners. But the cross-cultural flair they infuse into their offerings is hardly utilitarian; no one’s shoving a box of matzoh at a customer and telling him to make due. Rather, restaurants see this as an opportunity for invention. Rosa Mexicano (575 Seventh St., NW, Washington, D.C.), for example, put together a playful Passover menu this past year that included tropical haroset made with pears, bananas and dates, and chopped liver on matzoh tacos. Tabla Restaurant and Bread Bar (11 Madison Ave., NYC), an Indian restaurant, temporarily became an “unleavened bread bar.” Their tasting menu for Passover featured coriander-flavored matzoh ball soup and Goan spiced gefilte fish and brisket. But for many other restaurants, the melding of ancient and contemporary, East Coast and Middle East and Lower East Side, is an ongoing challenge that brings up complicated issues of identity and belonging—ideas far more pleasurable to address in a dish than a lecture.

Steven Cook, owner of Marigold Kitchen (501 South 45th St., Philadelphia) didn’t even realize how much his Jewish heritage informed his cooking until a reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed it out in print. “Only the son of a rabbi could dare to envision chopped chicken livers as a showpiece of gourmet dreams,” wrote Craig LaBan. “It wasn’t something I ever thought of before,” Cook says. “As in many Jewish homes, food was the center of activity for both my parents. My dad makes homemade gefilte fish every Passover and I’d be thrilled if I could make anything in my life as good as my mother’s latkes.” Cook trained at the French Culinary Institute, so his famous chicken livers (“maybe the best thing I ever came up with”) are seared with sweated shallots and folded into a rich bechamel sauce with grapes and almonds. And his golden beet risotto calls forth his grandmother’s classic borscht recipe.

Cliff Preefer Esq. was more aware of his influences when he opened Sacred Chow (522 Hudson St., NYC), a kosher vegan restaurant, which fuses plant-based cuisine with flavors inspired by Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Preefer grew up in a meat-eating family: He remembers bone marrow at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side and his father’s homemade schmaltz spread on matzoh, but he became interested in “plant-based cuisine” after living in Israel. He loved Israel but hated the violence he saw there and wondered what he could do “to make the world a little more gentle.” His interest in food drew the former Legal Aid attorney to the Natural Gourmet Cookery School, where he pursued his interest in “creating food made from less violent means.” His Romanian great grandparents inspired the smoked eggplant at Sacred Chow. “They cooked eggplant on an open flame and then hock hock hocked at it with a cleaver,” he recalls. Preefer’s somewhat gentler method involves a whisk, olive oil and pepper. Other Jewish inspired vegan treats include matzoh latkes, gefilte tofu and seitan brisket. His goal is to create something unique, yet evoking familiar and nostalgic flavors.

But nowhere else is the culture clash displayed with such deliberate, kitschy intensity than at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction, (34 Ave. A, NYC) a restaurant and cabaret space. The brainchild of restaurateur Phil Hartman (Two Boots) and his musician brother Jesse, the witty cuisine bubbles up from the neighborhood’s melting pot of Jewish and Latin cultures: paella marrano is an ironic mixed marriage of kosher chicken with chorizo, shrimp, clams and mussels; Sunday night spare ribs riff on the Jewish tradition of ordering in Chinese food; and the Maneschevitini cocktail (vodka, orange juice and a splash of the super sweet wine) is surprisingly successful. A choice of six appetizers, including chopped liver, chorizo meatballs, white fish escabeche and deviled eggs, are served on a seder plate. The menu also features straight-up Jewish comfort food inspired by Hartman family memories. The real fusion occurs in the ordering: Jesse loves to see a diner mixing ceviche with potato latkes or ordering a margarita with matzoh ball soup. The clientele is drawn from all ages and ethnicities: Latino families with teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms; Upper West Siders who come for the Murray Hill show. “I can’t imagine another place that has this mix of people and food,” says Jesse Hartman. Most people seem to know what the Jewish foods are, though servers are sometimes called on to explain kreplach (it’s Jewish ravioli). And we’re not sure exactly what qualifies, either. “Rice pudding,” Jesse asks, “Is it Jewish or isn’t it?”

What do you think?

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