It seems impossible, but Rosh Hashanah is here again. If you promised yourself last time that you'd learn to cook a brisket or bake a honey cake, but have only managed to expand your collection of Chinese-takeout menus in the twelve months since, don't feel bad. Laying down the charge card instead of dusting off the pots and experimenting with the matzo meal is as much a New York Jewish tradition as the dinner itself.
Anne Rosenzweig, chef and owner of the Lobster Club, began catering Rosh Hashanahs five years ago after one too many regulars phoned her in a panic. "They'd call and say, 'Anne! We just realized the holidays are tomorrow!' " she says. Now that she's an expert on down-to-the-wire New Year cuisine, we asked her to show us the best places -- her own kitchen included -- for time-challenged New Yorkers to buy their Rosh Hashanah feasts.
The only constants in a Rosh Hashanah meal are sweet ingredients (to promote a sweet New Year). Otherwise, every family has its own variation. For some, pickles are de rigueur; for others it's not truly a party without Manischewitz. Rosenzweig's ideal menu begins with the traditional serving of sliced apples, challah bread, and honey, followed by gefilte fish, matzo-ball soup, and chopped liver. Brisket and roast chicken are the main course, with tzimmes (a mix of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, and sometimes more brisket) and noodle kugel (a casserole of egg noodles, farmer cheese, and cinnamon) on the side. Dessert -- everything from rugalach to honey cake -- is almost another meal in itself.
Still in her red chef clogs, Rosenzweig heads first to the Union Square Greenmarket (30 East 16th Street; 212-477-3220). "This is really a harvest holiday," she says, inspecting a leafy apple, "so you want that sense of the fall harvest." She quickly homes in on the stands from Breezy Hill Orchard, purveyors of the tart and reddish-green King Luscious apples, and Locust Grove Farms, her choice for tiny Seckel pears, a Rosenzweig family tradition. "They contrast well with the honey," she says, scooping up a jar of the wildflower-and-clover variety from Twin Spruce Apiary ($3 a jar) a few booths away.
For the all-important challah bread, Rosenzweig chooses Orwasher's Bakery (308 East 78th Street; 212-288-6569), where traditional round loaves have been baked for Rosh Hashanah in the basement of its Yorkville tenement since 1916. "To symbolize no beginning and ending," explains Rosenzweig as she samples a still-warm slice (small, $4.50; large, $5.75). The holiday loaf, made from a different dough, is also richer and sweeter than the year-round variety, says owner Abram Orwasher. Those who want to take the sugar content up a notch can opt for the raisin version (small, $4.75; large, $6). Reservations for both kinds will be accepted until Thursday, after which customers can just come down in person and hope they get lucky. "Not to worry," says Orwasher, who's been doing this for three generations. "We have plenty."
One of the last classic Jewish delis left standing, the 2nd Avenue Deli (156 Second Avenue; 212-677-0606) verges on theme-restaurant status. Still, Rosenzweig insists that their matzo-ball soup and chopped liver reign supreme. Whether customers place orders or stop by on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, they will leave happy, as stock is constantly replenished. "There are three or four people standing in there for days doing nothing more than making matzo balls," says owner Jack Lebewohl. "Last year we lost count. If you said 10,000, 12,000, I'd believe you."
With the appetizers out of the way, Rosenzweig turns to the entrées. Mitchel London Foods (542 Ninth Avenue, at 40th Street, 212-563-5969; and 22 East 65th Street, 212-737-2850) is her pick for the juiciest roast chicken, stuffed with rosemary and garlic. But for brisket she taps Lobel's (1096 Madison Avenue, at 82nd Street; 212-737-1372). Though primarily a butcher shop, Lobel's developed a prepared-food holiday menu after customers repeatedly asked for help. A container of brisket with carrots and onions that serves three is $35.
To accompany the meat dishes, Rosenzweig recommends her own tzimmes, which is now sold to order ($4 per portion) at the Lobster Club (24 East 80th Street; 212-249-6500). She began honing the recipe as a teenager, spiking it with golden raisins, apricots, and caramelized brown sugar. Salmon gefilte fish is another holiday specialty of the house, and it no doubt blows the doors off your grandmother's version. Rosenzweig tweaks the usual combination of pike and whitefish with some North Atlantic salmon; the result is a pinkish tint and a sweeter taste counteracted by a dollop of red-beet horseradish on the side ($4 per serving).
The name Russ & Daughters (179 East Houston Street; 212-475-4880) is most often associated with cases of gleaming lox and pickled herring, but Rosenzweig goes there for the perfectly sweetened noodle kugel ($4.95 per loaf pan) and their gefilte fish made from whitefish, pike, and carp ($1.99 each). "The kugel is not overwhelmingly sweet, and the fish is more traditional, darker."
With all the pastry options in the city, you might assume that buying dessert would be a piece of cake. Not so. "Well-done traditional Jewish desserts are the hardest thing to find," says Rosenzweig. "Royal Kosher, where Seinfeld went for black-and-whites, isn't there anymore. Mosha's in Brooklyn is gone. Others have become so commercialized that they're not that ethnic. Their pastries don't have that intense flavor and chewy texture."
Russ & Daughters' rugalach ($11.90 per pound), however, remains the essence of rugalach: full of cinnamon and raisins and with a not-too-dense texture. The hand-rolled version from Sarabeth's Bakery (in the Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue, at 15th Street; 212-989-2424) also makes the grade; Rosenzweig declares it "the most refined and the prettiest." For traditional honey cake made to order (plus even more rugalach), she recommends Margaret Palca Bakes in Brooklyn (191 Columbia Street; 718-802-9771). "Honey cake should have a chewy but wonderfully sticky quality," says Rosenzweig. Palca's is the real thing.
Gertel's Bake Shop (53 Hester Street; 212-982-3250) is one of the last remaining sources for teiglach ($10), an old-world dessert made of pastry nuggets held together with honey and covered with roasted nuts and candied cherries that Rosenzweig likes to call "the Jewish version of croquembouche." Drop by Soutine (104 West 70th Street; 212-496-1450) to order their lemon or chocolate almond cakes, "a light and delicate version of old-fashioned Jewish pound cakes," sure to give you a sugar high, or at least make the Yom Kippur fast something to look forward to.
Party Like It's 5761
If cracking open a takeout container sounds too labor-intensive for you, some restaurants offer Rosh Hashanah menus. Lobster Club (see above) will be serving matzo-ball soup with carrots and dill, salmon gefilte fish, chopped chicken livers, roast chicken with tzimmes, brisket with savory noodle kugel, and honey-almond cake with Seckel pears and whipped cream. Blue Ribbon Bakery (33 Downing Street; 212-337-0404) will offer sweet-and-sour braised short ribs with tzimmes, noodle kugel, and grilled leeks, along with baked apples with honey, figs, and raisins for dessert. (It'll also be making challah bread to order; $8 for a two-pound round.) At Campagna (24 East 21st Street; 212-460-0900), Mark Strausman will be cooking up Tuscan pot roast, vegetable kugel, and potato latkes, with cinnamon-apple kugel for dessert. A $64 prix fixe holiday dinner at Tocqueville (15 East 15th Street; 212-647-1515) includes chicken kreplach, pan-roasted salmon, roasted guinea hen, and a sugarless apple tart. Uptown at Avenue (520 Columbus Avenue, at 85th Street; 212-579-3194), they'll be dishing out matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, braised lamb shank with mashed kasha, honey sponge cake with apple compote, and caramel ice cream. A $46 prix fixe at the Church Lounge (2 Sixth Avenue; 212-519-6677) will feature beet consommé with gefilte-fish quenelles, poached Alaskan wild king salmon, and handmade challah.