April 14, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Eli Sells the Store / Fig & Olive Branching Out

Reported by Insatiable Reporter Sylvie Bigar

Eli Zabar’s Passover pride is his sourdough matzoh.  Photo: Steven Richter
Eli Zabar’s Passover pride is his sourdough matzoh.  Photo: Steven Richter

        A Passover lemon meringue cake gets torched.  And Eli sells the store. Am I dreaming? No, just a case of cultural naiveté. This Friday Eli Zabar will “sell” the small kosher bakery that sits at the front of his Third Avenue supermarket sprawl. That is, he will sign a legally binding contract overseen by an official moshgiach – a rabbi in charge of ascertaining what is glatt kosher – selling the small kitchen and any leavened products and bags of flour to a non-Jew, as required by Orthodox Judaism’s Passover laws.

        Those of us who know Eli all these years as a devilish rogue who charges an elbow and a kneecap for crab cakes, may be shocked to learn that he sells the place for $10. It’s understood he buys it back at the end of Passover and the small, officially blessed cubbyhole can start producing kosher bread and babkas again.

        Certain rituals in the bakery must be observed to get the place up to Orthodox snuff for the eve of this holiday when Jews – religious or merely culturally compliant – forswear flour and leavened bread in honor of ancestors who fled into the dessert with Egyptian armies in pursuit and no time to let bread rise.  Ross Breen, Eli’s Yeshiva-trained, Orthodox baker, will lead the crew’s cleanup, then do his own thorough search with a feather, a brown bag and someone trailing him with a candle, brushing any stray crumbs and grains of flour into the bag.  The bag must be burned in a bonfire and various prayers intoned, says Breen, himself a licensed moshgiach. “We must tell God we did our best and if, by any chance, a speck of flour remains, we don’t know about it,” he explains.  “It’s a Jewish insurance policy.”  Bonfires being risky in a cramped space, Breen delivers the bag to an observant friend “to toss on his own bonfire.”

A feather, paper bag and candle get the bakery ready for sale. Photo: Steven Richter

        Previously, on the Monday after Easter, Eli’s bakers started rolling out his own matzoh in a 5000 square foot loft above the Vinegar Factory on 92nd Street. “The whole thing is a riff on the story,” says Zabar. “The Jews were being pursued…they had to mix the dough fast, stretch it and bake it.  They had maybe ten minutes. Our matzoh is not kosher.  We don’t have a special team from Israel to bake it. We just have the same Mexicans, Salvadorians and Peruvians that make the rest of the stuff all year. Some people care about kosher.  But the people in zip codes 10021, 10028 10024 and 10121 – they don’t care about kosher. But a lot of them want our matzoh. 

         “You gotta taste our matzoh with our fabulous chopped liver. We do coarse chopped liver.  My mother had a wooden bowl with a chopper and you could only make it coarse.  It’s got lots of onions. We cook our onions in butter and our livers in butter too.”

        Not far away Eli’s pastry bakery starts turning out flourless traditional (but not kosher) Passover sweets again:  loaf cakes, cookies and an elegant European style chocolate torte, moist and sophisticated with a butter cream filling. Coconut macaroons come all-chocolate, chocolate-covered or chocolate-dipped and there are almond paste macaroons too.  Flourless brownies satisfy the need for a brownie. There is marble cheesecake, chocolate glazed orange cake and a walnut date torte, $39.95 each.  Zabar’s signature cake – the mile high lemon meringue with marvelously tangy lemon curd – goes flourless for the holidays. It’s $125 this year (serves 14-16) and must be picked up in person because those torch-toasted white caps of meringue make it too fragile to deliver.  Last Passover 300 were sold.

A baker torches the meringue of the fragile lemon cake. Photo: Steven Richter

        Zabar has a passion for Passover equal to most men’s devotion to baseball. It’s not just a chance to rev up his catering crews to deliver Seder dinners and sell yards of brisket and tons of gefilte fish, a cousin, ten times removed from France’s more delicate quenelle de brochet at $15.95 a pint.  Liberated from the religion but not the culture, Eli loves Passover. Every year the entire Zabar extended family – 36 of them this year – assemble at his home for the seder.  (Needless to say, the whole caboodle is delivered from the shop.) The evening begins with the reading of the Haggadah, the ancient story of when the Jews were slaves, the Red Sea parting, the years of wandering in the dessert.  At Eli’s house when a reader comes to passages about the hasty mixing and baking of the bread, everyone applauds Eli and his matzoh, “It’s very rewarding,” says Eli.  “I am the most kosher and the least kosher. I am the most Jewish and the least Jewish. I’m a contradiction,” he says summing it up, bemused and amused to be contemplating the vexing complexity of himself.

Eli’s Mahattan 1411 Third Avenue at 80th Street. 212 717 8100. Eli’s Vinegar Factory 431 East 91st Street between First and York Avenues 212 987 0885. Catering and Home Delivery 212 987 0885 Ext. 4.


Fig & Olive: The Midtown Branch

The room gets prettier and shriller as the night goes on. Photo: Steven Richter

        An obsession with figs, fine olive oil and the perfumes of Mougins on France’s Côte d’Azur that doesn’t preclude an intense youngish following is an admirable business plan and fine by me.  I loved the food that concept inspired at Fig & Olive in the meat packing zone though the crowd’s bellow was rattling to me and my over-forty pals. From the aggressively nubile look of the brat pack thronging the bar and the crescendo of joyous possession as they move upstairs for dinner, I’d say Fig & Olive’s newest tendril on 52nd will draw its loyal flock.  Imagine.  Across from La Grenouille. A bizarre off-the-radar neighborhood for those who normally inhabit watering holes below 14th Street.

        It doesn’t hurt to know that three little splashes of olive oil in a tasting dish on the table are from France, Italy and Spain – fruity, peppery, grassy or vibrant. But there’s no real need to get all caught up licking and dabbing unless you’re stuck with a boring blind date and desperate for distraction.  Then it’s an option.

        Crostini is definitely my option. There’s a house team crafting ten different toppings at the bar and four of us sharing a dozen upstairs while sipping a fruity red from Cahors would be my way to begin the evening. But if you’re just dabbling, choose grilled vegetables with olive tapenade, eggplant caviar with sundried tomatoes, prosciutto and ricotta with fig and olive or voluptuous scallops and artichoke wreathed in porcini oil. 

Glazed lamb plus a Provencal salad for the table to share. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At that point one of four carpaccios or a modish small plate - cod brandade or swordfish ceviche - might be the lean team’s idea of dinner.  But we’re moving on to entrees, ultimately stirring mixed emotions.  That juicy rotisserie chicken on rosemary-mashed potato is, quite frankly, boring, and for me not even a splash of picholine olive oil will rescue overcooked branzino. (By now our table is alive with tumblers of olive oil.)  But the rack of lamb stands on its own and so does the house’s delicious tasting plate - chicken, lamb, and shrimp, each with its own Mediterranean garnitures - a free-for-all of eggplant caviar, arugula, bell peppers, Greek yogurt and honey, couscous and…yes, figs.  Perfect for someone with attention deficit syndrome.

        The crème brulée cheesecake is rather small (I see a trend to smaller and smaller desserts) but it comes with three sensuous poached figs.  And I love the gelato sitting on blood orange caramel with shortbread cookies.

        I like that we are not treated like dinosaurs in this youth palace, handsomely done up with a biblioteque of boutique olive oils and leafy branches in wrought iron.  Our graceful server plays all the right notes (if not a PhD candidate at Columbia, she could get a Masters in hospitality here).  She apologizes for accidentally bringing a child’s menu to the table - it’s the same size as the dessert menus. A menu for children! I’m surprised, but why not? With all this mating and dating there will inevitably be gestating. And how else would I have known that the house offers juniors mac ‘n cheese with baked chicken tenders or a grilled cheese panini with roasted potatoes or mixed greens, or a mini pizza for $4.50? And just in case the prodigy is still in a pram, there are “Tasty Baby” organic peaches, peas with brown rice purée, and sweet potato with apple.

        I opted out of the baby boom when I was married (my husband and I wanted to be children rather than spawn them). Frankly, I think that children under 18 should be fed at home unless they are mini-gastronauts (although that can be scary too). I’d have to borrow somebody’s grandchild if I were reviewing this menu.  What other restaurants love children? I want to know more about feeding offspring in New York restaurants. Email me, please.

10 East 52nd Street. 212 319 2002.  From 11 A.M. to 11 P.M, Sunday through Thursday. Till midnight Friday and Saturday.




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