Sexed-Up Jewish Food at Kutsher’s

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kutsher’s Tribeca opened in downtown Manhattan. Like Nobu, its neighbor around the corner, the restaurant promised refined, upscale cuisine. But while Nobu’s concept of fancy sushi has always been an easy sell, Kutsher’s mission is a bit more daunting.

Billed as a modern Jewish-American bistro, the restaurant is partly owned by a fourth-generation member of the family behind Kutsher’s, the last of the grand Borscht Belt resorts that once populated New York’s Catskill Mountains (it was reportedly the inspiration behind Dirty Dancing). Kutsher’s Tribeca promised a modern, tastefully sexed-up take on classic if frequently beige Ashkenazi foods like kreplach, chopped liver, and that bête noire of the Semitic culinary world, gefilte fish.

Having written a few months ago about the new generation of kosher restaurants, I was curious to see how Kutsher’s would stack up. While Kutsher’s isn’t kosher (though it doesn’t serve pork or shellfish, either), its implicit promise—that Jewish food isn’t what you fear it is—is identical to those other establishments'. I was also skeptical, as one should be when there’s talk of elevating any ethnic food to make it more palatable to customers with deep pockets and a fear of fat, carbohydrates, and pungent smells. Paying homage to Jewish food is one thing; giving it the equivalent of a Sweet 16 nose job is quite another.

One of the partners behind the restaurant is Jeffrey Chodorow, a prolific if impolitic restaurateur synonymous with high-gloss dining. His influence is felt in Kutsher’s sleek surfaces, dramatic low lighting, and discreetly burbling bass line. But I was more interested in tasting the influence of the chef, Mark Spangenthal, on centuries-old staples of Jewish cuisine.

Based upon what a friend and I ate, Spangenthal’s influence is a largely positive one. Over the course of two hours, we downed generous portions of crispy artichokes, gefilte fish, kreplach, Brussels sprouts, falafel-crusted salmon, chocolate babka bread pudding, and a plate of perilously dry cookies.

Among all of this, the kreplach and gefilte fish stood out as the dishes that most successfully illustrated what Kutsher’s is trying to do. The gefilte fish was made with poached wild halibut and served in a neat little cylinder alongside another cylinder of beet and horseradish tartare, hidden under a dainty toupee of micro arugula.

Although hearing “micro arugula” would have made my great-grandmother chase her blood pressure pills with a swig of Scotch, the fish was actually very good—tender, moist, well seasoned, and all of those things that fish should be. Most crucially, it looked nothing like the gefilte fish most of us grew up with, squidgy oblong nuggets suspended like turds in jars of tan jelly.

Likewise, the kreplach bore only a vague resemblance to its antecedents, meat- or potato-filled dumplings typically boiled and served in chicken soup. These were filled with ricotta and wild mushrooms, anointed with olive oil “schmaltz” and walnut pesto, and splayed languorously on a rectangular white plate. Rich, savory, and nutty, they were fantastic, an example of cultural assimilation done thoughtfully.

The only real miss was the plate of cookies, which offered uniformly dry and tough rugelach, black-and-whites, hamentaschen, and rainbow sponge cookies. To the restaurant’s credit, they swapped them for another bread pudding and didn’t charge us for either.

Whether or not Kutsher’s will make the dining public think of Jewish food differently remains to be seen, and there’s certainly room to question whether adding house-made ricotta to kreplach or serving latkes with “local apple compote” and three caviars counts as elevation or just playing dress up. To answer the age-old question, “But is it good for the Jews?,” I can at least say that insofar as I left the restaurant feeling happy and well fed, it was good enough for this Jew.

Image source: KutshersTribeca.com