Photographs by Danny Kim
Jack’s Wife Freda sounds like a character in a Barry Levinson film or maybe a Bernard Malamud novel. Instead, it’s a spiffy new Soho café, where the husband-and-wife owners have drawn on their New York restaurant backgrounds and their family histories to bring appealing new flavor to an urban archetype. Before they met while working at Balthazar, Dean Jankelowitz and his future wife, Maya, emigrated from South Africa and Israel, respectively. Together, they’ve created a hospitable hangout with the understated style and savvy all-day service that one associates with their old boss, Keith McNally, only infused with their warm, welcoming personalities and foods that remind them of home. (Jack and Freda were Dean’s grandparents.) The combination has already proved something of a hit, if rollicking brunch and late-night crowds are any indication. The clientele, young and stylish almost to a fault, seem to have fallen off the runway from some downtown fashion show and straight into the cozy café’s leather banquettes. To witness these lissome waifs and Greek gods with their high-octane metabolisms pack it away—presumably with zero repercussions to their tiny waistlines—was almost enough to put the Underground Gourmet off our feed. That would have been a shame. The food at Jack’s Wife Freda, you see, is homey, delicious, and wonderfully satisfying.
If you were going to give it a long and unwieldy name, it might be South African Israeli Jewish Grandmother Cuisine, and there’s no better introduction to it than Freda’s fried fish balls. Here are five bite-size fritters made from smoked whitefish and hake, finely ground and panko-crusted, then deep-fried to a crisp and served with horseradish aïoli. It’s gefilte fish for the McNugget set. Equally snackable are the “peri-peri” giblets, a South African shout-out via braised and fried chicken livers and gizzards seasoned with chiles that grow there; thick rounds of fried zucchini to dunk in smoked-paprika aïoli; and a toothsome slab of char-grilled haloumi cheese, garnished with grapes and tiny toasts. Freda’s matzo-ball soup is a soothing house specialty, and the Greek salad is constructed, as are an increasing number of winter salads these days, with crunchy fresh kale.
The Jankelowitzes always worked front of the house, which might be why they seem to know four out of every five customers who cross the threshold and to greet them with kisses and bear hugs. It’s also why they enlisted Employees Only chef Julia Jaksic to consult on the menu and bring their specific culinary notions to life. Sandwiches and entrées are tweaked just enough to keep things interesting: Sliced skirt steak is tucked into a Portuguese bun in the diminutive “Prego roll,” and the flattened crisp-skinned half-chicken can be ordered peri-peri style. Even a seemingly unsauced heap of orecchiette that looks like it was designed for a small convalescent child turns out to be full of good, cheesy, garlicky flavor. The real sleeper on the menu, though, is a burger built along the lines of the Shake Shack model, but with a slightly heftier patty. It comes on a Martin’s potato bun with tomato, a few tobacco-style fried onions, and a gaggle of meaty hand-cut fries. Order it with melted Gruyère and you have the best burger in Soho.
You’ll find the burger on the daytime menu, too, along with an assortment of breakfast dishes offered until late afternoon. The poached eggs come with haloumi and grilled tomato, the soft-boiled ones with challah “soldiers,” and the house shakshuka, a Middle Eastern baked-egg dish, wears a cloak of tomatillo sauce in place of the standard red tomato-pepper stew. Rather than Greek yogurt, rich, tangy Lebanese labneh is topped with granola and grapefruit segments. (That labneh also graces a sensational fruit crisp for dessert.) Late weekday mornings, in fact, might be the best time to enjoy the simple pleasures of Jack’s Wife Freda, with sunlight streaming through the French doors, room to spread out, and a cup of Stumptown coffee. You might pair it with a “Zucker rose,” a chocolate rolled pastry sourced, in classic Jewish-diaspora fashion, from an Israeli baker recently ensconced on East 9th Street.
For another approach to casual, heartwarming fare, the far East Village has given us Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter. Just stepping into this tiny, bustling, Rockwellesque feeding station with its eighteen seats (six of them counter stools) will boost your morale. There’s fried chicken flying out of the kitchen at a steady clip, a well-curated collection of hot sauces on the counter (Texas Pete is the one you want), and Willie Nelson and New Riders of the Purple Sage on the sound system. It’s the brainchild of Keedick Coulter, a native of Roanoke, Virginia, and, as such, a southern-food aficionado with a predilection for humanely raised meats and local, sustainable produce. (As he professes on his Facebook page, there’s nothing worse than an out-of-season tomato.) The menu is as small as the space. There’s a great pimento cheese sandwich on Orwasher’s bread; a pork-chop sandwich, meat courtesy of Coulter’s cousin Bev Eggleston’s Eco-Friendly Foods, with housemade chowchow (a turmeric-tinged relish); and a meal-size winter salad, studded with beets, grapefruit, and candied pecans. But the fried chicken is the thing. It’s brined in sweet tea and cooked in a pressure fryer, and it’s pretty much perfect: crunchy, crackling, juicy, relatively greaseless, and full of flavor. It comes with a side salad and a wonderful buttermilk biscuit, and should be supplemented by any number of frequently changing sides. Our favorites: the black-eyed peas and the creamed kale, which seems to alternate with collards. If dessert after such a down-home feast feels like overkill, sweet tea will suffice.