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Haute Gefilte

Can Jewish food go upscale?

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Even in an era of Madison Avenue Peruvian cuisine and $200 slow-cooked pork shoulders, there’s something about a “modern Jewish-American bistro” that seems audacious. But that’s exactly what Kutsher’s Tribeca aims to be. Filled with white columns, green tiles, and spherical light fixtures—an aesthetic one might call Midcentury Fancy Swimming Pool—the place is backed by Jeffrey Chodorow, the restaurant tycoon, and inspired by Kutsher’s Country Club, the last great Borscht Belt resort. Its goal is to make Jewish cooking graceful; there’s a “borscht salad” of beets and goat cheese accompanied by fingerling potatoes and artichokes, and airy knishes laced with house-cured pastrami. But the dish that will be the ultimate test of the restaurant’s philosophy is one that appeared on trial menus only in a highly unorthodox fried version, until the chef, Mark Spangenthal, decided he had to serve the real thing. “Nobody said no,” he says. “So I started my quest”­—a quest to refine gefilte fish.

Spangenthal knew what he was getting himself into: With gefilte fish, the diner arrives with well-honed complaints.“It’s a tan lump sitting in goo. A tan lump sitting in goo,” he says. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, gefilte fish originated in medieval Europe as fish that were skinned, chopped, and stuffed into their own skins before cooking. It evolved into ovals of ground fish (usually some combination of pike, whitefish, and carp) served with jellied broth—and, beginning in the mid-1900s, the jarred blobs and weirdly amniotic shelf-stable gels of the modern Passover pantry. Spangenthal saw an opportunity for redemption. “First,” he says, “I came up with poaching it, as you would do a torchon of foie gras.”

Choosing just the right ingredients took up the bulk of the development process, which took two months and involved more than twenty different gefilte-fish iterations. “I liked whitefish the most,” he says, “so we started going toward that. But then it got bland and kind of listless.” Eventually he zeroed in on halibut. “It had the clean taste, the right texture, the right mouthfeel—it had everything.” Sugar? A bit. Matzo meal? Too heavy, so he folded in challah crumbs instead. Oil? “That’s the one secret,” his choice of fat. To round out the dish, he added a puck of beet and horseradish tartare, a tangle of frisée and microgreens, and two smears (schmears?) of parsley sauce. The wild halibut sits front and center, pressed into pristine hunks.

The only recent predecessor to Kutsher’s Tribeca that comes to mind, East Village “global Jewish” restaurant Octavia’s Porch, opened about a year ago and closed six months later, interring its “Red Lentil Soup, Challah Crouton.” It is a fraught undertaking, dressing up a former peasant cuisine that seems resistant to upscaling—its essence less in its flavors than its routines, the tan lumpiness of it all a metaphorical and perhaps somewhat literal social glue. (Matzo balls: tan lumps. Latkes: tan lumps. Knishes: lumpy tan fillings embedded in tan lumps.) At Kutsher’s, on opening day, the halibut was cream-colored and smooth, with a clean, not at all fishy flavor complemented by carrots and onions. But devotees of gefilte fish may find something missing. Namely: Needs goo.

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