Oh, paradoxical Passover. To celebrate freedom from forced labor, we exhaust ourselves with chores; remembering the needy, we throw away our bread (well, I don’t, but maybe you do). During the one week when many who normally do not keep kosher suddenly do, kosher restaurants close. Kiss your hopes for an Uzbeki Jewish meal goodbye this week, as NYC’s Salut closes along with the vast majority of kosher-supervised American restaurants. Passover-inspired meals ranging from traditional to innovative are far likelier to appear at the nonkosher fine dining joint near you.
Like monks and the authors of sestinas, chefs often find their greatest liberation within constraint. It was only a matter of time until the demands of Passover, the prohibitions of which seem to beg transgression, became a challenge a là Iron Chef. The resulting experiments tapped into an almost primal love among Jewish chefs and diners alike. Restaurateur Alan Popovsky hit a vein in 1998 when he introduced his mom’s recipes for matzah ball soup and brisket onto the menu at Felix, his restaurant in Washington DC. Faced with intense demand for holiday take-out, he expanded the menu. Now “we have a reputation as the place to be on Passover,” says Popovsky.
Traditional grub reminds many Jews of great family cooking, usually by untrained and unpaid chefs whose avocations might have been better rewarded had they been born later. These are usually the people who taught Jewish chefs how to eat. Popovsky uses these recipes “because [they’re] pretty much what I used to eat when I grew up in my family’s house. We also had charoset, the Ashkenazi way with apples. My mom is great at cooking.” His full Pesach menu has translated home cooking to restaurant dining with finesse: the braised brisket for traditional tastes, the grilled salmon for nouveau palates, the roasted chicken for, well, people who love roasted chicken.
But reinvention, or at least reimagined juxtaposition, is key to any successful culinary movement. Which may be why, in a nation whose Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrahi chefs and restaurateurs are pulling out more stops than ever this season. Two high-ticket Mediterranean restaurants, LA’s Spago and New York’s Capsouto Frères, helped to pioneer the nonkosher foodie seder in the 1980s, and as the practice spread to Colorado, Georgia, Florida, and other exotic places, it is Sephardic and Mizrahi menus that have continued to capture the imagination.
Like Popovsky, many Sephardic restaurants reincarnate seders past. Ordinarily a regional French restaurant, Capsouto Frères goes straight to its owners’ Turkish (via Egypt and France) roots with a seder appetizer of spinach, leek, and zucchini frittatas. Leeks and spinach are standard Sephardic Passover fare; why zucchini? “Because that’s what we ate at home,” barks Chef Jacques Capsouto. “We duplicate my grandmother’s meal.” Emilie Rousso, born in Izmir, Turkey, also served huevos haminados (slow-cooked browned eggs), stewed artichoke heart in lemon broth, poached salmon, bamieh (okra), fassoulia (green bean stew), and mina (matzah lasagna, in this case stuffed with potato and gruyere). Chef Capsouto, who specializes in wines, will choose two Israeli vintages to accompany the meal and its French-tinged desserts. For $120, everyone tastes everything. “We don’t give a choice,” says Chef Capsouto. “Everybody eats the same.” All proceeds go to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which in 1986 agreed to give 100% of the seder revenue to help Neve Şalom, an Istanbul synagogue with which the Capsoutos have a family connection, recover from a terrorist attack.
Another traditionalist is Zenash Beyene, chef of Chicago’s Ras Dashen. Her menu reflects an Ethiopian Passover “exactly,” she says, as she celebrated at home. While Chef Beyene hosts a 20-30 person seder in a private room, restaurant guests can eat the same lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables, and homemade chickpea-based matzah. Unlike most restaurateurs conducting Passover this year, she’s genuflecting to kashrus regulations. In accordance with Ethiopian Passover prohibitions against fermentation, the menu includes “no sours: no bread, no butter, no cheese, no yogurt, no nothing,” says Beyene.
A move toward Sephardic seder food reflects mainstream culinary obsessions with fresh ingredients, boundary-pushing fusion, and healthfulness. Certainly, some menus reflect a chef’s perception that Sephardic food tastes better. “The Jewish-Italian tradition, I confess, I use as license to make the food taste good,” emails Hank Straus, owner of the Aurora Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. “No gefilte fish from a jar here. The meat is typically lamb, though two years ago we wood fire-roasted kid.” Miami’s North One 10 takes creative liberties with Latin American and other traditions in a Passover menu featuring gazpacho with almond oil and crab cakes. Yes, crab cakes. It’s no surprise that health-focused restaurants mix Sephardic ingredients (which are often lighter) into the Ashkenazic progression. Dill, asparagus, dates, almonds, ginger, and pear will appear on the Passover menu at Moosewood Restaurant, an upstate New York natural foods collective that developed the recipes for its cookbook Moosewood Celebrates. Similarly, Chef Cliff Preefer of New York’s vegan-kosher Sacred Chow mixes plant-based Romanian, Israeli, and Sephardic ingredients (he’ll serve fresh fruit and substitute sangria for Manischewitz) for the first of what he calls “a naturally safer, cleaner” seder.
Although it appears only in the form of alternative charoset on some Ashkenazic tables, Sephardic seder tradition has for the most part moved beyond the realm of tokenization. Japanese influences now perform the adventurism function on several menus this year, from Sacred Chow’s sake shakes and miso-matzah-vegetable stew to “sashimi-style” tiritas de salmon al Jocoque at Rosa Mexicano in New York, DC, and Atlanta. (Unbeknownst to many contemporary chefs, Chef Tadashi Ono, father of Japanese-Jewish fusion, served miso-matzah ball soup and other Passover dishes at Manhattan’s legendary, defunct Sono). As the diversity of American chefs’ backgrounds increases, we might expect to see a broader and deeper attention to Asian (particularly Indian, Chinese, and Central Asian) seder traditions in coming years. Additional restaurants offering 2006 Passover menus include Savoy, Le Marais, Payard, the Minnow (New York City); Fork (Philadelphia); Felix (DC); Dick & Harry’s (Roswell, GA); Boca Raton Resort & Club; Chef Allen’s (Aventura, FL); Spago (Beverly Hills); Syrah (Santa Rosa, CA); and Firefly (San Francisco).With few exceptions, meals are prix-fixe (about $30-$120) and require reservations. A few will bust out Wednesday and Thursday seders. “I want [customers] to partake in the meal and…absorb the story of freedom,” says Peefer of the nontraditional storytelling seder he plans. “This experience will bring a sense of more freedom than you had when you came in.”