New York’s food world has been abuzz with the opening of Kutsher’s, an American Jewish bistro named for the iconic Borscht Belt resort. Can Jewish food “go gourmet”? And, should it? Both questions have been asked perhaps exhaustively amongst passionate foodies lately.
Yesterday, we got some answers from the powers that be, some of the city’s biggest food critics. In unison, The New York Times, New York magazine and Time Out New York dished out their opinions on the new restaurant. Here’s what they had to say:
When Mr. Kutsher told an interviewer that he hoped to continue the Catskills tradition “in a really modern, fun, hip, downtown kind of way,” it sounded so unlikely, that only one explanation made any sense. The place must have been designed to fail.
But when the kitchen isn’t trying too hard, Kutsher’s turns all the jokes about Jewish cooking upside down. Which is to say: The food here’s not bad. And such big portions!
Kutsher’s has other attractions, too. For one, it must be the least pretentious “nice” restaurant to open in Manhattan in years.
…executive chef Mark Spangenthal is doing the real heavy-lifting here, deftly scouring Jewish culinary touchstones and teasing grandeur from humble, familiar foods. You might start with some of his house-made deli meats: peppery pastrami ridged in fat; supple veal tongue; or a pot of tangy duck-and-chicken liver with rye bread, pickled vegetables and grainy mustard.
But for all the restraint of the savory menu, the tinsel desserts bring back memories—the bad ones—of the Kutsher’s of yore. The leaden black-and-white cookie ice cream sandwich and cloying babka bread pudding were both missteps that verged on parody
…the contents of the excellent house delicatessen plate (which include pink veal tongue and strips of soft, house-cured duck and — deckle pastrami with pickles, mustard, and a pot of delicious horseradish aïoli) were quickly devoured. The same thing happened to a platter of crisped artichokes alla Judea (frizzled in the Roman style with garlic, Parmesan, and lemons) and to the ingenious…herring [two ways], which is also cured in-house and served in two little Alfred Portale–style towers, one of them dressed in the traditional way, with sour cream and pickled onions, the other with wasabi and yuzu.
Kutsher’s executive chef, Mark Spangenthal, has worked at top kitchens around the city, and if there’s a problem with his radical interpretations of these ancient dishes, it’s that some of them are actually too good.
The cliché joke about Jews and opinions could easily be about critics: Three critics means many varying opinions. But, Kutsher’s, despite and perhaps because of the low expectations people had of it, has succeeded in surprising most critics and diners with its upscale take on Jewish food. Some dishes, like the gefilte fish which has received almost universal negative marks clearly still need some work. Others, like the delicatessen plate, a Jewish take on charcuterie, and the herring two ways are intriguing and perhaps point to Jewish food stepping into the contemporary food scene. Where chef Mark Spangenthal and others will take that in the coming years, we’ll have to wait hungrily to taste.