I am more often found in my own kitchen working on recipes than out and about eating at restaurants, but this past week I found myself enjoying everything from Yemenite fish stew on the Upper West Side to Tel Aviv-style hummus in Philadelphia. I don’t always rave but truly: every bite was delicious.
Last week in New York City, well-known food writer Adeena Sussman along with renowned Israeli chef and food personality Gil Hovav hosted a week of pop-up dinners and brunch at the charming Upper West Side restaurant Vino Levantino. I didn’t totally know what to expect – the only other Yemenite food I had tasted before was lechoh bread this past summer in the market in Tel Aviv.
Gil Hovav introduced the event sharing funny and touching stories from his childhood in Israel about Yemenite food and his family. Plates of hummus and a smoky egpplant dip were soon spread out on the table, along with fluffy pita. But the best starter of all was the light yet spicy cocktail made with fresh ginger and grapefruit juice, an olive oil rim and a unique spice mix made by Lior Lev Sercaz of the NYC specialty spice shop La Boite (where I have visited, and yes, it is kind of awesome).
The kubaneh, the crown jewel of the dinner, was delicious and unique but made even more special by the love both Gil and Adeena expressed for it. Kubaneh I learned is almost like the Yemenite version of challah, though it is eaten Saturday morning and cooks overnight. It was crusty on the outside, while being moist on the inside, I imagine a result of being cooked in olive oil for so long. I was slightly suspicious of a fish stew, but it was so rich and flavorful made with red snapper and hawayejj, a spice mix with Yemeni origins. A simple but perfect dessert of tahini cookies, semolina cake, pistachio and dried fruit was a flawless conclusion along with a “white coffee” made with ginger and cardamom. I was in love. I am in love. I left wanting more, and I remain hopeful that Adeena and Gil will soon deliver.
I didn’t expect to be transported so quickly from the classic, spice-filled Jewish cooking of Yemen to borscht-belt inspired tapas, but nevertheless, this weekend I found myself surrounded by small plates “inspired by the cuisine of the Jewish diaspora” at Abe Fisher in Philadelphia. One of the exciting restaurants by Chef Micheal Solomonov, I was blown away by the light and spicy borscht tartare salad, pastrami hash knish and even duck confit blintzes.
Dessert was divine: the maple bacon and egg cream gave the impression of drinking a classic egg cream, with a foamy chocolate on top akin to the drink I enjoyed throughout my childhood, but it was anything but a simple egg cream. The panna cotta was creamy and rich with a tangy citrus topping.
And most impressive of all was the attentive service from the staff. Perhaps it’s because I was removed from New York for 36 hours, or maybe it’s just because Solomonov is running a great operation, but all the staff we encountered were helpful, accommodating and passionate about the food of Abe Fisher.
For lunch on Saturday I found myself transported once again to another Jewish cuisine, this time to Tel Aviv at another Solomonov establishment: Dizengoff. The tiny restaurant is a hummuseria featuring a super simple menu of perfectly prepared hummus in various flavors which change daily, homemade pita bread, pickles, salad, limonana and beer. We arrived at noon and very quickly there was a line out the door. The hummus was perfectly creamy and the fact that they are making their own pita in-house is impressive to say the least.
Sunday morning found me wandering in search of bagels and cream cheese for my husband and daughter who were snug in bed enjoying a lazy morning. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Chestnut Street Bagels, producing high quality, crusty bagels with all the fixins – even whitefish salad. I opted for a bialy with butter for myself, an absolute favorite and was not disappointed. Even for a New Yorker.
Different cities, vastly different cuisines, all absolutely delicious. And I guess that’s one of the things I love about Jewish food: it’s diverse, interesting, ever-changing and it’s everywhere these days.