The Jew And The Carrot

La Vara: Tasting Spain's Jewish Past

By Rachel Tomlinson

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of La Vara
Beef tongue at La Vara.

Tucked away on a side street in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, La Vara is an artfully decorated, cozy restaurant specializing in Sephardic and Moorish cuisine. It’s the latest project by husband and wife team Alex Raij and Eder Montero, who own two Spanish restaurants in Manhattan.

Raij wanted to explore the Jewish element in Spanish food and took the name La Vara, meaning the branch, from a locally-published Ladino newspaper from the mid-20th century. The name does more than just signal the restaurant’s Sephardic cuisine, it points to Raij’s broader fascination with how niche communities draw on and influence the larger environments they inhabit. To craft the menu, she delved deep back into Spain’s rich history for inspiration, unearthing ancient Spanish-Judeo dishes that were transformed by the Inquisition.

A month after their opening, we chatted with Raij about her culinary inspirations for La Vara, why she chose to make it non-kosher and how the restaurant fits into the current Jewish restaurant scene.

Rachel Tomlinson: What inspired the move to create a restaurant focused on Jewish and Moorish cuisines?

Alex Raij: When I think of Spanish food I have always included the Jewish element. Growing up being Jewish and speaking Spanish it was a matter of course. I am interested in the dietary laws of a community and how it enriches a cuisine — not hinders it. I wanted to have a restaurant that directly reflected the legacies of both cuisines together — Spanish and Jewish. We thought: “Let’s show people that Spanish food has multiple different influences and legacies.”

Did you ever consider making La Vara a kosher restaurant?

No. I did not grow up in a kosher household so it was not as close to me. I was more interested in the way that Jewish and Moorish traditions were Christianized in Spain and how that is reflected in the food. During the Spanish Inquisition, all converted Jews and Moors were forced to eat pork — and now there are all of these Sabbath dishes that have pork in them. So, the cuisine was no longer kosher after the Spanish Inquisition and La Vara is concerned with this kind of authentic or traditional Spanish cuisine.

Our menu reflects this — our suckling pig, a traditional Spanish dish, is accompanied by rosewater and quince, which represents a contribution from the Moors. In Spain, ham and charcuterie are so commonplace in cooking they are almost considered it a condiment. If I were to do kosher, I would do it as a store, like a pantry, this way I would not be limited in the kitchen in terms of flavor or tradition.

Are there any dishes on the menu that have a particularly interesting Jewish story behind them?

All the cocidos or Sabbath dishes are unique in that every region of Spain has their own version but all are from the that tradition.

What research did you do before opening the restaurant?

I research dish by dish and this project is a collection of recipes that have been on my mind for a while. But generally I have a sneaking suspicion about the origin of a dish. I tend to make connections and then confirm them with research.

How does La Vara compare to your other restaurants, El Quinto Pino and Txikito?

El Quinto Pino is supposed to be the little bar that’s downstairs from your apartment — just like in Spain — a casual place to stop in and share tapas with friends. Txikito is a Basque showcase and it’s more formal. With La Vara I wanted to make it more focused — I wanted to show that tapas is approachable to eat and hopefully if people are sitting down and really taking the time to enjoy a meal they will appreciate it more. At La Vara all of the pieces of the menu not only go together but tell a story. La Vara is a place to explore a different palate — it’s a way to keep challenging the chefs and a way to remind people of the rich legacy of Spanish food.

You mentioned on Grub Street that you were interested in opening a neighborhood. What about the Cobble Hill neighborhood in particular drew you there?

We were drawn more towards small storefronts embedded in the neighborhood that are a part of the landscape. Cobble Hill made the most sense as the shops in the neighborhood have a Jewish and Moorish legacy… For us, we like to think that the restaurant would help to glue the neighborhood together by using so many ingredients from so many different local stores. We have so many great customers who view the restaurant as an extension of their homes. At La Vara I have the chance to get to know my customers one at a time — food is currency.

There seems to be a trend — especially in Brooklyn — towards more upscale Jewish restaurants. How does La Vara fit into this?

There is a trend for revival Ashkenazi cooking right now, like Mile End, etc, but La Vara is not this kind of restaurant. I think that the tastiest Jewish diet is the Sephardic diet — the ingredients are just much more vibrant. I do love schmaltz. I just wanted to do something a little different.

How exactly did you choose the name La Vara?

For us it was also a metaphor for branching out to Brooklyn. There’s a quote on the mural at Txikito dedicated by artist Mikel Urmeneta. It says: “When you leave your country your branches become your roots.” I think that as the child of immigrants, married to an immigrant telling this particular story in a place that so many immigrants call home has made the name even more relevant.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Spanish Jewish Restaurant, Ladino Restaurant, La Vara, Jewish Restaurant Brooklyn, Alex Raij

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.