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A Very Kosher Christmas in SoHo

How a trendy eatery is battling the laws of physics to redefine kosher cuisine

David Fine
December 26, 2012

What is a new restaurant to do when all agree that it has everything going for it except for, um, the food? Fire the chef, of course. That’s exactly what the owners of Jezebel, SoHo’s chic glatt kosher eatery (chew on that), did a few months into their operation.

I profiled Jezebel for Tablet when it first opened in July. At the time, I found the concept compelling, the ambience dynamic, but the food a bit lackluster.

Back then, the man helming the kitchen was Bradford Thompson, a chef that Jezebel’s two young owners, Menachem Senderowicz and Henry Stimler, had hired to open the restaurant. Thompson came with a bevy of awards, but the quality didn’t match the astronomical menu prices. The New York Daily News best encapsulated this consensus with its kicker of a review:

“Jezebel’s especially exasperating because there’s clearly potential here. And judging from the packed house, there’s a deep hunger for grown-up kosher food in a cool room. Jezebel has the décor down. The food and service, not so much. We’ll start kvelling once the place grows up.”

So, Stimler and Senderowicz declined to extend Thompson’s contract and went looking for, according to Stimler, “a rock and roll guy,” who would revive the restaurant’s culinary offerings. After a few tryouts they hit on Chris Mitchell, a young, hot New York chef whose long resume includes stints at the Breslin and the Meatball Shop.

Jezebel unveiled Mitchell’s new, and still evolving, menu a few weeks ago, and it looks like the young owners made the right decision. Last Sunday night I visited the restaurant to see if anything had changed, and I was blown away by the food’s turnaround: it seems that the time has come for us to start cautiously kvelling about Jezebel.

Prices have been adjusted down, a bit of diversity added, and a general facelift given to the new American offerings. A steak will still cost you a pretty penny ($48-$55) but there is enough price variance for other offerings that you don’t have to be embarrassed to tell your friends you ate out at Jezebel last night.
The original menu felt like Thompson had come up with his ideal New American menu and then worked backward from kosher limitations. Good, but not great, dishes derived from his effort.

Mitchell’s new menu feels much more holistically devised, maintaining its mission of grown-up New American while embracing, rather than shirking, the lack of dairy that kosher restrictions impose on meat restaurants. Stimler told me that Mitchell threw all he had at the problem of cooking without butter or cheese, including the use of molecular gastronomy to thicken sauces and replicate dairy tastes. In addition to creating a delicious set of dishes, this new approach answered a burning question we hadn’t known we’d been asking ourselves our entire lives: What happens when, in traditionally milk-based recipes, we substitute generous servings of truffle oil for butter?

The answer, dear reader, is dishes like the wild mushroom risotto. Held aloft by house-made truffle butter, the risotto melted in the mouth, expanding outwards from its perfectly cooked rice and mushroom mix to create one long note of flavor with each bite. It’s hard for dairy restaurants to get risotto right—-Jezebel’s ability to do so without cheese or butter heralds a grownup approach to their kosher food mission. Same goes for the truffled fries. When our server first brought them to our table, they asked if we wanted ketchup, and, like any red-blooded Americans, we crowed yes! We soon discovered, though, that the ketchup obscured rather than enhanced the truffle-ladened flavor of the fries.

Non-truffle-focused dishes were also on mark. For appetizers, I’d recommend the kale salad and veal meatballs. The salad struck the right balance of dressing, and soft-roasted squash offset the kale’s semi-bitter taste. The meatballs were uninventive, but provided a little touch of home, sitting in a cumin and coriander tomato sauce that reminded me of one-part mom’s cooking and one-part tajin. (The meatballs also gave a little slice of the Lower East Side’s popular Meatball Shop to kosher diners.) The Hamachi crudo was an unfortunate disappointment for $18; the hamachi was fresh, but presentation was, in fact, crude and the garnishes seemed tacked on.

If you order one thing though, go with the lamb chops. At $55, they’re the most expensive dish on the menu, but they’re worth it. Sitting atop a root vegetable mash and fall fruit compote, the meat was tender enough to part ways easily from the bone, but not overcooked or stringy. The compote melded with lamb’s notoriously fickle flavors to create a, dare I say, succulent dish. After one bit, a companion, who does not share my love affair with lamb, made me promise that I’d get him these chops no matter where he was for his last meal.

Not all of Mitchell’s reimaginings hit home. The Jezebel “Mac & Cheese” side ($9) was too intriguing to ignore, but the dish didn’t sing like the others. Mitchell attempted to work his molecular magic into creating a near replica of cheese without using dairy. What results is fake cheese better than most others I’ve tasted but one that’s still distinctly fake and a bit plasticky. Desserts are a bit of an afterthought, but you can’t go wrong with the granita, which was fresh and reinvigorating after a flavorful meal.

Aside from changing up its regular menu, Stimler and Senderowicz have gone into overdrive attempting to create one-off experiences that other hip New York restaurants offer but that have so far evaded the kosher scene. The latest was a six-course Chinese cuisine tasting menu prepared by celebrity (New York celebrity, not real celebrity) chef Eddie Huang on Christmas Day.

The event promised a drop-in experience with family-style dishes. I dragged along an intrigued friend to the first round at 1:00 PM, which was probably a mistake. Huang was still calibrating and produced uneven results: some dishes sated our Chinese food Christmas jitters, while others left us underwhelmed.

What mattered, though, was that this event existed. Over in Brooklyn, as Marc Tracy reported earlier, Mile End Deli was serving a similarly pitched experience. I didn’t make my way there, but neither did any Orthodox Jews because Mile End is not a kosher place. The mere fact that a glatt kosher eatery is trying its hardest to reach hipster heights, and mostly succeeding, should hearten the internal Jew present in any New York foodie.

David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.

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