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On the Towns

Burekas in Florida, hummus in L.A., and elegant Israeli cuisine in Philadelphia: ferreting out the unexpected at restaurants around the country

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Bill Ferrell’s lamb loin with polenta, Brussels sprouts, and caponata. (Seth Jackson/Big Burrito Restaurant Group)

A book tour is a marvelous way to sample the food at some very good restaurants—albeit briefly between speeches and signings—and learn about regional food innovations. During a 32-city tour I recently completed, I tasted lots of the same old, but I also stumbled on some culinary gems. I am generally reluctant to write about restaurants, especially if I have had only one meal there; I do not claim to be a restaurant reviewer. But I was excited by some of my findings. My favorite dish? A pumpkin risotto with white truffles at Binkley’s in Cave Creek, Ariz., about an hour from Scottsdale. Here’s hoping the following restaurants will whet the appetites of readers who are traveling this holiday season.

When I heard about the burekas at Avigdor’s Café in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I was so eager to try them that I headed to this glatt kosher dairy café set back from Stirling Highway late at night, after a book talk. I have been in love with burekas, Turkish turnovers, since I lived and worked in Jerusalem in the 1970s. Every Friday morning, a municipal worker named Simontov brought them on a tray—flaky and filled with cheese or spinach or both—with Turkish coffee to the office where I was working. Although I have never found their equal, Avigdor’s, filled with spinach, cheese, and potatoes in a variety of shapes, made with prepared puff pastry, were quite good. In addition, the menu included such dishes as jahnoun, that Yemenite precurser to the kugel, served with hot sauces for Sabbath breakfast, and panko-coated fried eggplant with pesto and mozzarella. There was something very Israeli—with its good coffee and mint tea—and nostalgic about the café, which is located in a house next to a religious fellowship center that plays evangelical music.

Neal Cooper is the Jewish chef-owner of the tiny Petit Rouge on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. Neal had contacted my publisher and invited me to dinner at his restaurant while I was in town. His menu, featuring French bistro food with touches of American cuisine, did not disappoint. It includes a tarte flambee, a thin crisp Alsatian tarte with cheese on top, trout from Grenoble, with a beurre blanc sauce and capers, and delicious tarte au citron.

In Dallas, Natalie’s Kosher Kitchen is the fleyshig equivalent of Avigdor’s, housed in one of the few kosher markets in the area. Natalie’s is run by Mordecai and Natalie Pinhas, he from Israel and she from Malaga, Spain, where members of her family have lived since before the Inquisition. Natalie’s is typical of many kosher restaurants I have seen around this country: Usually run by ex-Israelis, they either offer a small grocery within the restaurant or serve meals as part as a larger kosher market, always with bare-bones decor. In addition to good homemade hummus, Natalie’s features schwarma and Israeli and Mediterranean salads such as mambuchta, one of my favorites, with tomatoes cooked down to perfection. It also serves grilled meats and yummy eggplant dishes for vegetarians.

When I started this tour, I thought I would write about the many delis around the country, but for the most part they disappointed me. The exceptions were the smoked fish and the huge black-and-white cookies at the white-tiled 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia and the Montreal smoked meat I tasted at Brooklyn’s tiny Mile End.

In Los Angeles, I had hoped to get to Langer’s for my favorite pastrami sandwich. But in San Francisco, where people eat and breathe food, I met Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom, two twentysomethings who are opening their own deli, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, in several months. (Location yet to be determined.) Like Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff, these thoughtful boys are updating familial cuisines with bold style. I tasted their breads, a salty challah and rye bread, good enough to replace most caraway ryes and challahs in bakeries today. Stay tuned.

At the Hummus King, located in a strip mall on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood, Calif., the bar boasts 10 different kinds of hummus, all delicious, made from dried chickpeas from such places as Jerusalem, Jaffo, Akko, and Jordan. The varieties were similar—how dissimilar can hummus be?— but the Jerusalem was thicker and chunkier, with Jaffa and Akko thinner and smoother. Some had cilantro, some had garlic with a hint of cumin, some hot pepper, and some were simply sesame paste, salt, and chick peas. (It’s interesting that the word hummus refers to both chick peas and the dish in both Arabic and Hebrew.) The Hummus King also features a unique vegetarian schwarma made from soy. Its young owner, Jason Aballi, roamed Israel, Greece, and Jordan in search of the ultimate hummus and opened his operation, featuring the fruits of his labor, six months ago.

I have wanted to visit the modern Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia since it opened in 2008. Run by Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, who has been named a finalist for the James Beard award, Zahav serves elegant but homey dishes like fried cauliflower with labneh and a flatbread pizza that emerges from an authentic wood-burning taboon oven. Philadelphia, it seems, fosters Jewish chefs. Solomonov’s friend Alon Shaya, also from the City of Brotherly Love, is now the chef at John Besh’s Domenica in New Orleans, a beautiful restaurant featuring great inventive pizza, charcuterie, and pastas.

Like Philadelphia and New Orleans, Pittsburgh has lots of young people flocking to it, and it features one of the coolest fish stores I have ever seen. Located in the Strip District, the city’s historic market, the Penn Avenue Fish Company is part fish store, part restaurant. Henry Dewey, the co-proprietor, has an edgy aesthetic (his warehouselike space has a fisherman’s boat suspended from the ceiling) and spent years working at Benkovitz, the oldest fish market in Pittsburgh. Today many of the city’s Jewish residents buy the carp, whitefish, and pike they use for gefilte fish from Penn Avenue.

While on a TV show in Pittsburgh, I met Bill Fuller, the corporate chef of the Big Burrito Restaurant Group, and later stopped by Casbah, one of its restaurants, where Bill was cooking dinner. I tasted a delicious diced sautéed eggplant, slightly sweet and more than slightly sour, with the addition of citric acid usually served with roast lamb. It’s just the thing with which to ring in the new year.

Caponata
Adapted From Bill Fuller

2 large eggplants, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes
2-4 tablespoons olive oil, as needed for sautéing
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 orange, zest and juice
2 tablespoons sherry or apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon citric acid or sour salt to taste
1 tablespoon capers, drained, rinsed, chopped finely
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped, or one tablespoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons garlic, finely minced
3 tablespoons honey or to taste
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup celery (about 2 stalks), cut first in julienne strips and diced

1. Heat a wide skillet over high heat, and add some of the olive oil. Sauté the eggplant in batches (adding more olive oil with each batch) so that the pan is never crowded, adding salt and pepper to taste. When the eggplant is soft but not mushy (about 10 minutes) remove to a wide baking dish or bowl.

2. Stir in the lemon and orange zest and juice, the vinegar, citric acid, capers, oregano, garlic, honey, cayenne pepper, and celery. Mix well, taste, and adjust spices accordingly. Serve at room temperature as a dip or spread, or as a warm garniture for lamb. Can be made up to five days in advance.

Yield: 5 cups (serves 8-10 as an appetizer).

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Richard says:

Ms. Nathan, you’ve made my mouth water. If only I could visit all the places you mention! Until then, I will have to try Zahav and also again visit 4th Street Deli — which I have only been to once, about five years ago. I live in one of the northeast suburbs of Philly, which means going to Center City is a bit of a trek for a 67-year-old. But, thanks to you, these two places are now on my “to-do” list! Now, if Groupon would only come up with a deal …!

Nice article. I was so pleased and really excited when i read about Wise and Sons. It is next to impossible to get anything kosher when in San Francisco on business. Yes i know someone will write about a place that is about 1 hour outside of the city, but when there on business the average person does not have a car nor the time to shlep there. So Wise and Sons looked promising until i went to their initial web site. It says TREF. A pity and i guess they can call it what they want and I assume Jewish is a word that is thrown around a lot lately, but it would be so nice if it was actually attached to something KOSHER, which in this case, IT IS NOT.

Leglegl says:

I guess the restaurant called “Tref” is more honest, nu.

tvalman says:

What about the Israeli Restaurant “Hamifgash” in Philly? I was there in 2008. Is it still there? Run by an Israeli woman the food was superb and not too expensive.

Joan- most of the resturants in your article are not kosher- but “kosher style”. I though you were religious.

Chana Batya says:

Joan, Avigdor’s is a “glatt kosher dairy cafe?” I think not!

Natalie’s in Dallas is kosher and has the prices to prove it. Very good though.

Miriam Leah says:

The term, “glatt kosher” is used to refer to kosher meat, and not to dairy. Technically, it means that the animal used for the meat had smooth lungs, with no adhesions…

You are absolutely right about Avigdor’s, a dairy cafe, that calls itself glatt kosher. Of course, it is just kosher as glatt refers to meat. A few restaurants are kosher. I tried wherever I was to find them but could not in all places. I’ll have to try the one you mentioned in Philly the next time I am there.
Joan

FAL,

Yes we have decided not to be a kosher restaurant. Instead, we are using locally sourced, natural, and organic products. We will, however, not be serving pork or shellfish on our menu but will be mixing meat and milk on some dishes. The Bay Area does need a good Kosher restaurant however we will not be filling the void at this time. If you eat dairy or non-meat dishes out, we would love for you to come in when we open. Feel free to contact us: pastrami@wisesonsdeli.com

Joan, I live within walking distance of Famous 4th Street Deli in Philly. I STILL say that Katz’s and Russ and Daughters beat anything by a mile.

Zahav is very good. New York prices !

Come to our house and my wife will make a brisket, kasha varnishkas,etc..that will knock your socks off.

Perot,
Invite me! I am there! Joan

There are so many articles written about peoples favorite Jewish delis and such around the country lately. UNFORTUNATELY, Jewish, no longer means kosher. There are so few places outside of major cities that have anything kosher besides going to the supermarket and even in the major cities, the names of restaurants and even their signs can be deceptive. Many places that had been started by Jewish immigrants and at one time had been kosher are now either owned by others or even their grandchildren but there isnt anything kosher about them except perhaps the name. What a pity. I also wish that when people are writing about kosher restaurants they keep it to only kosher and not insert others that sound like a nice kosher place for lunch that when one decides to look up the menu only to find that it serves ruben sandwiches, etc.. Nothing to be proud of.

I’ve said that least 1881424 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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On the Towns

Burekas in Florida, hummus in L.A., and elegant Israeli cuisine in Philadelphia: ferreting out the unexpected at restaurants around the country

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