One doesn’t expect to see a mezuzah outside a restaurant in the midst of a bustling Harlem street. The block of 116th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard is lined with bodegas, hardware stores and soul food spots. But upon closer inspection the embellished clay ornament at the light blue store front of Silvana, a café and shop, reveals it’s a mezuzah.
Silvana’s tall shop windows are filled with a variety of colorful items that appear to stem from all over the world – from candles and African wood figurines to hookahs and jewelry. “Shwarma/Falafel/Bar/Live Music/Boutique/Café” is printed on the marquee, which seems like a lot for one venue. But everything falls into place inside, where you find yourself in a living room between Israel and Africa, with partly exposed red brick walls, a dark red carpet on the hardwood floor, and large wooden tables that customers share. Some work on their computers, while others munch on cakes or falafel sandwiches.
Keep calm: Ben’s Kosher Deli is not going treyf.
The owners of the iconic eatery on W. 38th Street in Manhattan’s Garment District were overwhelmed with panicked calls this week after Crain’s New York Business reported Ben’s is “pondering the unthinkable” and might “break with tradition to reduce costs” as it expands beyond the New York metro area.
“It’s a headache,” a person who answered the phone at Ben’s Manhattan business office told the Forward. ”People are calling to see if we’re giving up our kosher certification, which we have no intention of doing.”
With a mix of bemusement and frustration, Ben’s founder Ronnie Dragoon told the Forward that Crain’s reporter Lisa Fickenscher had actually asked him what he would do if kosher fabricators and processors went out of business.
“My response was that if they are no kosher fabricators or processors, I’d have no alternative but to look elsewhere,” Dragoon said. “But she took the intention away from the answer.”
Confusing readers more, the Crain’s piece noted that a chef who’d come in to audition for a spot at Dragoon’s new Westchester location — slated to open in August — had presented a tasting menu that included a bacon-and-cheese dish.
“The chef had made up a menu for us, so there was a list of ten ingredients, including bacon and cheddar. But he never made that dish,” Dragoon said. “The way it was written, it sounded like he brought the food in, prepared it, and had us taste it. Even if he wanted something non-kosher, he couldn’t purchase it for our kitchen. All of our purchasing is done through the business office. We have ingredient and food-item lockdown.”
The chef, Scott Rabedeau, got hired anyway. He’ll be designing a menu for the 5,200-square-foot Scarsdale Ben’s that includes “dishes from yesteryear, Ashkenazi standards, and Mediterranean dishes - past, present, and future.” Rabedeau’s an alumnus of Maggiano’s, the New Jersey Italian chainlet “started by a Jew,” Dragoon laughed.
Scarsdale will become the first of three planned locations to open by 2015, including Washington, DC, and Boston. Ben’s, Crain’s reported, is on “solid footing” after a challenging few years that saw locations close in 2006; the chain now generates more than $25 million annually.
“One location in a city works very well,” Dragoon said. “It’s appreciated, you have a wider audience, and you’re a niche business with little competition for that dollar. That’s why my location in Boca Raton is very successful. On Long Island, I have three units that cannibalize each other. One each in DC or Boston will do well.”
Dragoon even told the Forward he thinks a kosher restaurant could thrive in a neighborhood like the Lower East Side, where a mini-controversy erupted over the storefront that once housed Noah’s Ark Deli, the area’s last full-service kosher restaurant. Neighbors started a petition urging the building’s co-op to seek another kosher tenant; dissidents said kosher’s time was over downtown.
“That neighborhood may not have the local population to support it, but it’s a very mobile population in Manhattan,” he said. “It’s possible people would flock to it if it’s the right kind of operation.”
Kosher eateries everywhere are facing tough times, though, Dragoon said. “Occupancy costs like rent and taxes have outstripped demand for kosher restaurants,” he explained. “Because so many fabricators are closing, food prices go up, too. The high costs across the board make it tough.”
Ben’s, however, is here to stay, Dragoon said. He also had a message for Forward readers, and anyone else listening: “Ben’s is staying kosher for as long as there are kosher fabricators or processors.”
Photo credit: Facebook/Ben’s Kosher Deli
Getting Nat Goldberg to stop for a minute is no small feat.
The Nigerian restaurant Buka, which she co-owns with partner and chef Lookman Mashood, is hopping. Their spice-selling store just opened and African Restaurant Week is going strong through Oct. 20th with three-course, $28.95-prix-fixes and a Friday night hip-hop DJ party.
Far from Goldberg’s Australian home, Jewish upbringing and architecture career, the couple’s business has created a buzz, having turned a narrow, brick-lined law office in a a newly hip corner of the Clinton Hill neighborhood into a happening, art and music-filled eatery.
“She designed it and I built it,” Mashood, a professional carpenter, says with pride, before popping back into the open-galley kitchen to oversee cooks and put together a catering order.
Recipe: Nat Goldberg’s Nigerian Chicken Pepper Soup
Goldberg believes their ethnic eatery featuring recipes from Mashood’s family and the country’s myriad ethnic groups, filled a void. Unless you really knew where to go, where to find New York’s innocuous, hole-in-wall places, you couldn’t eat Nigerian food in the city, she said. The meaning of Buka is small, side-of-the-road restaurant, maybe lacking in appearance but totally delivering in quality.
And the city’s Nigerian community has embraced them, according to Goldberg, who believes 70% of their customers are from Nigeria.
New Yorkers with a sense of adventure gravitate to Buka for cow feet or goat head cooked in Igbo spices. Goldberg is not kidding when she says the food is hot. No fusion here. Nor do they “tone down foods to suit the American palate.”
Dear New York City bagel-lovers,
As a Montreal export to New York, I take offense at your treatment of our version of the mouthwatering goodness that is the Montreal bagel.
Granted, I’m aware that I’m in the minority on this issue. Any five-second conversation with my colleagues at the Forward combining the word “Montreal” and “bagel” usually ends with me having to raise my voice an octave or two as I desperately try to explain why they are in fact superior — which they are.
There are two main outposts of bagel legitimacy in Montreal: Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. And as any Montrealer will tell you, debates about which one of those two is better can get pretty heated — but that’s a whole other type of schmear.
For those of you too caught up behind the massive girth of the New York bagel to know any better, here are a couple of differences between the two:
Montreal bagels are smaller. Hand-rolled and baked in wood ovens, they have crispier crusts and are less bread-y than their equivalents south of the border.
Montreal bagels are sweeter. But just a touch so. The recipe is slightly different (and some say, more authentic and true to what you would have gotten back in the Old Country), in that they are made using malt flour and boiled in water flavored with honey.
Montreal bagels are simpler. Begone travesty items — Yes, I mean you, cinnamon raisin frauds! The Montreal bagel only comes in two flavors: sesame or poppy seed. When toasted, the crispy seeds take on a smoky flavor. That, combined with a thick dollop of cream cheese and a piece of smoked lox, is what it’s all about.
Much has been written about our differences. Sometimes, it’s done with a veil of objectivity, as in 2009, when the Times’ City Room blog listed the pros and cons extensively, going as far as dragging a batch back to New York to let their newsroom decide (big surprise, they chose their city).
And sometimes, as in the case of food writer Mimi Sheraton, our bagels are quite literally abused. In 2011, Sheraton violently discarded Montreal’s baked treasures: “I have never eaten anything worse called a bagel,” she told the New York Times. But even she admits New York bagels aren’t what they used to be. In the wake of H&H closing its doors, she declared the state of the bagel as “deplorable.” I guess nostalgia dies hard.
I will concede that try as I might to resist it, the “everything” bagel has made its way into my heart. But one glance at the dozens of home-bought comforts packed into my freezer over several visits from friends and families is enough to make me forget the smell of garlic, salt and onion wafting down from Absolute Bagels, only a couple of blocks upwind. It’s not for nothing that Noah Bernamoff, creator of Mile End Deli, decided to cart in truckloads of St-Viateur golden goodies through the night to serve to his customers for nearly two years before baking his own Montreal-style bagels in New York.
They’re just that good.
Maybe it’s a matter of what you grew up with. After all, what is a bagel if not a reminder of where you come from, a taste of home that you crave when you’re away?
(But really, it’s not. Ours are better, sorry.)
Disgruntled Montreal Expat.
It is hard to describe a sharper contrast then the one between the trendy spirit of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the idea of a steaming bowl of authentic kubbeh soup. My first association with Kubbeh soup is of a small Israeli kitchen, presided by a skilled Iraqi or Kurdish Jewish grandmother, or of an equally small kitchen-restaurant in Shuk Machaneh-Yehuda, the famous market of Jerusalem.
But last week, I found myself, rather late on a freezing winter night, in a street filled with small fashion boutiques and trendy bars, standing in line with a group of young people waiting to enter Zucker’s Bakery. A coffee shop by day, the small yet inviting space, is transformed each night into a pop-up kubbeh restaurant named “The Kubbeh Project”.
The restaurant presents a playful tension between the authentic and the contemporary: it is dominated by a large community table, set with a long blue denim runner and brown paper placemats. Young couples and small groups are seated elbow to elbow, in an unusually intimate setting I later learned was part of the Kubbeh Project’s goal. “We wanted people to sit close to each other, their conversations to blend into each other and their space-boundaries to be challenged. It’s a part of our vision of the preparation and serving of food as a mode of community-making. We would consider it a success if people felt comfortable enough with each other as to reach out and grab a slice of bread from their neighbors’ basket”.
I grew up eating pickles. Every few months, my uncle would send me a half gallon of “Uncle Phil’s Dills” — a delicious, salty, garlicky, creation of his own full-dill pickles, and I would eat the entire jar on my own. As I’ve grown up, my love of pickles has never ceased; I love new-dill pickles, fried pickles, even dill pickle chips (McClure’s makes a great chip). In college, I spent a semester in Spain and spent a majority of my free time eating olives and people watching. Now that I’m living in New York City for the summer, I’m on a quest to find the best pickle in the world.
Jews have a history with pickling. My grandfather, who grew up here in the 1930’s, tells me stories about the pickle-sellers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Jewish areas of Brooklyn. Hearing him talk about the barrels full of brine water, garlic, salt, dill, and other spices, I imagine it was a pickle-lovers dream. There were the traditional pickled cucumbers, of course, but there were also pickled green beans, tomatoes, and cabbage — there were even pickled apples and watermelons! Pickling was an affordable and convenient way of preserving vegetables without refrigeration for many Jewish and Eastern European immigrants. Many Jewish school children would often spend their pocket money on pickles and candy. Despite their pervasiveness in society, however, not everyone loved the pickle, and one author even went so far as to call it “a seething mass of rottenness.”
This morning I was making challah for the Sabbath. The water I mixed with the yeast came straight from the tap. Thankfully, today my water is clean and free of chemical contaminants. But I’m worried that this may change.
My water comes from upstate New York, where gas companies are eager to begin drilling for natural gas to power the energy needs of a growing population. New York City’s watershed lies over the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that stretches from New York, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, to West Virginia. Until recently, gas companies did not have the technology to extract the gas in the Marcellus shale, because it is trapped in small pockets in layers of rock. But now a new and dangerous process called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking or fracking, has made it possible to release gas. The state is expected to lift its ban on fracking in certain areas of the state, according to The New York Times today.
For Sarah Karnasiewicz of the LA Times, borscht is “my family’s edible valentine,” she shares her ode to the dish and several recipes for varieties including spiced mushroom borscht and a white borscht.
Gearing up for Passover, Epicurious wants to know, is “Matzoh, Better Plain or Dressed Up?”
In Florida noted chef Michael Baum is remaking himself and the knish with his gourmet interpretations of the classic Jewish snack, writes the Miami Herald.
As the Times Square ball dropped, government and corporate sectors switched from their 2010 to 2011 budgets. In the mix, New York State, whose population makes up the largest kosher consumer market outside of Israel, has stripped the Division of Kosher Law Enforcement, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The 11-employee division of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has been whittled down to just its director. The cut follows another budgetary decision made last summer to lay-off much of the division’s staff. The department is saying that the lay-offs will save the state $1 million this year.
Chinese food is the most prolific cuisine on the planet, and, aside from the Chinese themselves, no one loves it more than American Jews, according to Andrew Coe, author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.” On Christmas, noodle, rice and savory dish consumption quite possibly peaks among Jews, but this is no new phenomenon. Below, we look at the relationship and history of a food-loving people to a most unlikely cuisine.