It was a blustery winter night, and we were walking in Long Island City — only a bridge away from the Upper East Side, but it felt like another world… a cold and windy world, and an unlikely location for an upscale kosher dinner of whiskey-glazed spare ribs and coconut-caramel pears. But that’s what we found, at the latest pop up restaurant presented by Manna Catering, one of the leading gourmet kosher caterers in New York. My friends and I sat at one of about 20 tables arrayed at the hip Foundry venue, housed in, yes, a former foundry. complete with exposed-brick ambience and loft-like aesthetics.
I was there in part for the prospect of a six-course gourmet kosher meal, and in part because it would be cooked by a former Hebrew High School student of mine, Yair Lenchner, who joined his family’s business after studying at the French Culinary Institute. Yair’s father Dan Lenchner has, according to Manna’s website, prepared kosher meals for the likes of President Bill Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Yitzhak Rabin, and Jordan’s King Hussein.
Well, the apple has not fallen far from the tree; indeed, at our meal, it landed on a bed of greens, right next to the duck bacon. The pop up was a sumptuous, if slow-moving, combination of farm-to-table, seasonal cuisine with a few kosher curveballs thrown into the mix.
The highlights came early and late. The first course was a delicious and fun amuse bouche that was basically a 21st century form of gribenes, the Eastern European specialty made of fried chicken skin. (A staple at weddings and bar mitzvahs, that is; not so much at circumcisions.) Raves all around. And the dessert, featuring the aforementioned coconut-caramel pear, elicited oohs and ahhs. In between, the meal was a mixed bag: seasonal, though sparse, root-vegetable appetizers; delicious pan-fried sweetbreads and less delicious mushroom dumplings; possibly- overdone smoked ribs and just-right trout. The variety, and the hits-and-misses, makes sense: Manna’s popup was really an audition (no doubt, potential wedding and bar mitzvah clients were among those partaking), a culinary mix-tape showing off a wide variety of tricks and treats.
Along with my partner Paul, I went to the pop up with something of an expert: wedding planner Elizabeth Dodd, there with her fiancé, Josh Ring. Elizabeth explained that Manna and a small handful of other caterers are meeting a new demand. “A lot of my clients are looking for new options, not the same old standard that they’ve gotten a million times over the years at bar mitzvahs or synagogues,” she said. “They’re looking to wow their guests and provide food that reflects their personal culinary values.”
In other words, no more of the same carving stations, rubber chicken, and starchy pareve cake that is often de rigueur at kosher events. The kosher bouche wants to be amused — and the eco-kosher conscience wants to know that the food is locally sourced, organic, and generally unprocessed to the extent possible. Of course, providing such options generally costs more than the “same old standard.” But in a world in which spending six-figures on a New York wedding is not unheard of, perhaps the focus on farm-to-table food is less an indulgence than a healthy redirection of resources.
Will the guests at these hip-gourmet weddings appreciate sweetbreads and sous vide eggs, as opposed to corned beef and kreplach? That remains to be seen. We sure did.