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The Rise of the Jewish Pop-Up Restaurant

Pop-Up Shabbat and The Hester offer a modern take on ancient traditions

Elissa Goldstein
August 06, 2013
Shabubbe menu. (Cait Opperman/Pop-Up Shabbat)
Shabubbe menu. (Cait Opperman/Pop-Up Shabbat)

I have this theory about pop-up restaurants: they are actually very Jewish.

The harried baking of matzah before the exodus from Egypt? That was the beta version of the pop-up. The portable mishkan the Israelites schlepped through the desert for forty years like a tribe of peripatetic, meat-obsessed Nate Berkuses? Pop-up barbecue. Passover? That’s basically a week-long pop-up restaurant in your own kitchen. We might as well call it Popover.

So pop-up restaurants are very Jewish, and they are also very hip. Therefore they are very popular in Brooklyn. And because I am a hip Jew living in Brooklyn, the burden fell upon me to go forth into the Hipster Wilderness on behalf of Tablet in search of the Jewish Pop-up Promised Land.

My first stop was ShaBubbe, the inaugural dinner of the Pop-Up Shabbat project, held in a swish minimalist townhouse on the banks of the Gowanus (which is like the Seine of Brooklyn, but less… pretty). The entrepreneur and balabusta behind Pop-Up Shabbat is Danya Cheskis-Gold, a vivacious 20-something and former start-up employee with a dream: to unite the traditional elements of a Shabbat dinner—wine, good food, conversation, and a convivial atmosphere—with the secular foodie culture of the pop-up restaurant scene, thus opening the concept of Shabbat to Jews and non-Jews alike. “If New Yorkers can love sushi,” she asks, “why can’t non-Jews enjoy a cultural experience and food inspired by Jewish culture?”

Why indeed? Stepping into ShaBubbe was a bit like stepping through a portal into an alternate universe where your Shabbat table is populated entirely by tattooed 20- and 30-somethings who work for tech start-ups and non-profits. (Okay, okay, so it’s like any Shabbat table in Hipster Brooklyn.) The theme, as the name indicates, was one of loose Jewish nostalgia. A musical duo, the Jewbadours, set the scene with covers of 1980s and 1990s TV theme songs.

The tables—just three, each seating about twelve diners—were elegantly set with flowers, wine, bread, and candles. True to Cheskis-Gold’s vision, the aesthetic was reminiscent of Shabbat, but not super-Jewy. (No white tablecloths here, although there was a kiddush-cup fountain—a requisite nod to Jewish kitsch.) Each course was catered by a different local providore, who introduced his/her wares, methods, and Shabbat philosophy to the participants as the food was being served.

Highlighting specific dishes in a generally exemplary meal always feels wrong, sort of like favoring one child over another, but there were a few items that really stood out: The Gefilteria’s pickled watermelon rind (sweet and sour, with just a hint of crunch), as well as their roasted beet borscht, which was totally sublime. (The key, I discovered, was to serve it with creme fraiche, not sour cream.) Shannon Sarna’s “everything” bagel-challah rolls were just that—delightful ‘hybread’ rolls akin to challah in texture, and bagels in flavor, which I think encompasses pretty much everything you could ever want in a bread product. For me, the highlight of Melanie Shurka’s main course wasn’t the centerpiece (a beautifully presented Cornish Hen), but the trimmings: parsley-cilantro fritters, an arugula salad with charred cauliflower and hazelnuts, and tahdig—that coveted, crunchy Persian rice scraped from the bottom of the pan.

Cheskis-Gold describes Pop-Up Shabbat as “DIY Judaism.” She thinks it’s more relevant to young people than what traditional synagogues and non-profits currently have on offer. And it certainly does break from tradition: ShaBubbe might have been a thematically Jewish meal held on a Friday night, but there was no aspect of religious ritual to the proceedings, and nearly everyone was Instagramming their meal—in a lot of ways, it reminded me of a Shabbat meal in a secular Tel Avivi household. I missed the absence of ritual, but it’s a conscious, deliberate move on Cheskis-Gold’s part, and it makes sense if you’re trying to tap into a wider market.

ShaBubbe makes for an interesting contrast with a long-standing, kosher Brooklyn pop-up, The Hester, which operates from the Ditmas Park home of chef Itta Werdiger-Roth on a monthly(ish) basis. (I should disclose that I know Werdiger-Roth personally, having helped out as a waiter in the early days of her enterprise, when it was more of a cocktail party.)

The Hester is probably the only pop-up restaurant where you’ll find Balzac-reading patrons sipping Watermelon granitas next to Orthodox yeshiva students, to the soundtrack of a song about being gay, gypsy and Jewish. (For real!) It’s this incongruous demographic mix that makes it such a delight—if you’re single, I recommend coming alone and just randomly talking to people. Chances are you’ll strike up a conversation with a secular tech geek, or a formerly Orthodox rabbi, or a frum female psychotherapist from Crown Heights. (You might even meet your bashert; Werdiger-Roth likes setting people up.)

Given my connection to The Hester, I can’t be completely objective about the food, but personal connections have never stopped anyone from vowing that their Mom’s chicken soup is the best, right? Disclaimer aside, when I visited The Hester on Tuesday night, it was even better than I remembered. Werdiger-Roth emerged from the kitchen periodically throughout the night to mingle with guests and describe her cooking and ingredients in her signature warm-harried style. (Regarding the bean salad: “Don’t worry, the rattlesnake beans are kosher, and the salad has weeds that I picked from my neighbor’s garden, but I tasted them before putting them in so you’re not going to die.”)

The highlight of the meal was the heirloom eggplant starter, which was served with lentils and a perfect, melt-in-your-mouth soft-boiled egg. Also memorable was the dessert of basil ice cream (“Quick! Eat it before it melts!”) and plum tart puree, paired with halvah fresh from Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market.

I asked Werdiger-Roth if she thought there was anything particularly Jewish about the notion of a pop-up restaurant, and she said that the idea of spontaneous, open hospitality was simply something she grew up with. “We were always having people over,” she said of her big, Orthodox family. “You can always squeeze one more person around the table.”

Interested in checking out a pop-up in New York City? The next installment of the Hester is August 7, featuring a four-course dinner and musician Moshe Hecht—and there are two spots left. Also, Israeli start-up EatWith has officially launched in New York, where chefs amateur and professional invite you into their home for a meal. Or petition the Kubbeh Project to make a comeback. Any other Jewish pop-ups you’ve seen where you live? Let us know about them in the comments.

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.