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Great (Matzo) Balls of Fire!
January 6, 2012 - Phyllis Sigal
The list of foods I don't like is a small one.
Goat cheese. Okra. Frog legs.
There are a few foods I wouldn't want to try.
Rabbit and horse come to mind quickly. I'm sure there are others.
And I love ethnic cuisine — Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Israeli and Mexican, to name a few of my favorites.
So when I go to New York City, I'm in heaven. You can get just about anything you want there.
Our most recent visit, a few days between Christmas (Chanukah) and New Year's, we tried a food that we've often not had — at least not at a restaurant.
We tried Jewish food.
What is Jewish food, you might ask.
There are many foods specific to a Jewish household — I should know. I grew up in one.
According to the Judaism 101 website (www.jewfaq.org), "Jewish cooking is a unique synthesis of cooking styles from the many places that Jews have lived throughout the centuries. Jewish cooking shows the influence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish, German and Eastern European styles of cooking, all influenced by the unique dietary constraints of kashrut [kosher] and other Jewish laws. Many of the foods that we think of as Jewish are not unique to Jewish culture. Stuffed cabbage, a traditional Jewish dish, is common in Eastern Europe. Blintzes and knishes are familiar to all Germans, not just Jewish ones. Falafel and hummus, increasingly thought of as Israeli-Jewish foods, can be found in any Greek restaurant. But the combination of these varied foods into one style of cooking, along with our own innovations, is uniquely Jewish."
To me, Jewish foods are things my grandmothers, my mom, and now, my husband and I make, usually specific foods for specific Jewish holidays.
My husband Bruce, who was not born Jewish, was born with a cooking gene. And anything he makes is delicious — especially some of the Jewish delicacies he has been making over the years.
He's known far and wide for his Chanukah latkes (potato pancakes), and his Passover matzo balls are light as a feather.
Would this New York Jewish restaurant live up to Bruce's standards?
We thought we'd give it a try.
Kutsher's Tribeca — "a modern American bistro" — recently opened at 186 Franklin St. in New York City.
Started by Zach Kutsher, a fourth generation member of the Kutsher family who had a resort in the Catskill Mountains — also known as "The Jewish Alps" — the restaurant strives to bring "the spirit, fun and hospitality of Kutsher's Country Club to Manhattan," says the website.
The decor is modern, but with a 1950s feel — when the Catskill resorts were in their heyday.
The chef gives a modern, upscale twist to old Jewish favorites, such as matzo ball soup, kreplach, potato latkes, gefilte fish, herring, knishes, chopped liver, potato kugel — to name a few.
So here are the twists:
• The gefilte fish is made with wild halibut and is served with beet & horseradish tartare, micro arugula and parsley vinaigrette. The gefilte fish I grew up with came out of a jar, was made with white fish and served with horseradish in beet juice, also from a jar.
• The pickled herring two ways on Kutsher's menu comes with pickled onions & cream, and wasabi, yuzu & pepper. What's a yuzu? (It's a Japanese citrus ... just looked it up.) My herring? It, too, was from a jar.
• My mom used to make chicken liver. She'd cook the liver to death, grate it, add some chicken schmaltz (rendered fat from the chicken skin), mix in a hard-boiled egg and spread it on Saltines. It usually needed salt. And some more chicken fat to make up for the very dry over-cooked liver. Kutsher's used duck and chicken liver, and served it with a variety of matzo, rye bread and pumpernickel upon which to spread the silky, smooth pate. Yum.
• Kreplach. That was something I didn't have much as a kid. It's similar to a tortellini or a wonton or a dumpling. Traditionally, they are filled with ground meat or mashed potatoes, and served in chicken broth. At Kutsher's, I ordered the kreplach as my entree. The wild mushroom and fresh ricotta kreplach, was stuffed with walnut pesto, olive oil schmaltz and fresh black pepper sheep's milk cheese. Every bite was like a little cheesy, pasta cloud. I was quite pleased with my choice.
• A knish was another treat that wasn't a staple in my house, although I do remember my dad getting them when he could. A traditional knish is a potato and flour dumpling that is usually stuffed with potato and onion, chopped liver or cheese. My son Leland's entree — the grilled Romanian steak, a prime skirt steak with caramelized onions — came with a roasted garlic and wild mushroom knish. Also on the menu is a stuffed potato and leak knish served with house-cured pastrami, braised fennel and emmentaler (a Swiss cheese) and spinach, mushroom and fontina.
A few things on the menu we didn't try — but that sounded good — were the duck schmaltz fries (as if fries aren't bad enough as it is!); Milton's short rib and brisket meatballs served with caramelized onions and creamy horseradish sauce; the cured salmon trio, with nova, grave lox and pastrami salmon served with chive spread, pastrami oil and pumpernickel; the red wine braised flanken-style short ribs with schmaltz mashed potatoes and glazed root vegetables (enough with the schmaltz already!); and the Friday night roast chicken (for two) with pletzel, and maitake and black trumpet mushroom stuffing. (A pletzel is an onion and seed covered cracker. A maitake is a kind of mushroom.)
We didn't try the kugel. My mom also used to make potato kugel. Hers was good — grated potatoes, salt, pepper, egg, flour, baked in a casserole dish. Kutsher's kicks it up with some spinach and wild mushrooms.
Back to what we did try. I saved these two for last.
• Latkes. OK. This was going to be tricky. What if they were better than Bruce's? What would I say? We had to try them. The appetizer portion included three latkes — (they were probably fried in schmaltz) — served either with local apple compote, sour cream, or sour cream and three caviars. We went with the caviar. Each latke was topped with sour cream and a different caviar — black, wasabi and a large-egg variety. Crispy. Tasty. Oh, they were good. Better than Bruce's? Not necessarily. But, close.
• Mrs. K's Matzo Ball Soup. I almost ordered that as my dinner, but the three of us decided to share a bowl. Like the latkes, we needed to compare. The soup was tasty — a good, rich chicken flavor. There was a good amount of carrots and celery cooked in the broth. The chives and dill added a flavorful, upscale twist. And the matzo balls? OMG. I was surprised they didn't just float right out of the bowl and up to the ceiling.
Better than Bruce's? What? Better than Bruce's? Bruce's are incredible! Delicious! Wonderful! Light as a feather!
Excuse me while I get a little "schmalzy" here.
(I think they may have been a little better than Bruce's.) Oy vey.