December 12, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Kutsher’s Tribeca: Romancing the Kreplach
Deli meats as tidbits to share is a Kutsher’s Tribeca discipline. Photo: Steven Richter
I grew up in small town Detroit longing for the New York of the Algonquin crowd. Visiting at 15, I did a Zelda, took off my shoes to wade in the fountain across from the Plaza. My date, thinking I was at least 21, did not morph into Scott Fitzgerald. All I know of the Catskills I learned through Dirty Dancing though I knew to ask for corned beef “lean” (I really preferred it “fat”) at Beosky’s Delicatessan and when I fell in love with the Kultur Maven, I wished I’d paid more attention to my Grandmother’s potato pancake technique.. He would have loved them. Mastering an egg cream was easy. My matzo balls came from the recipe on the box. He never complained.
I miss a little nostalgia in this Catskills moderne design. Photo: Steven Richter
I couldn’t wait to check out Kutsher’s Tribeca even though I worried that Jeffrey Chodorow might be riding into a wall in partnering with Zach Kutsher to bring back a memory frozen in time. Sixties Borscht Belt is rarely listed among the top ten cuisines.
Our next door neighbors joined us on a direct subway shoot to what used to be Drew Nieporent’s Tribakery and then Mai House. He’s Italian, she’s Irish, and with my resident Bronx cowboy, the Road Food Warrior, I thought we’d be a nicely eclectic crew of tasters even if none of us had ever sampled the true terroir of the Catskills.
The Road Food Warrior is a pickle fan, especially happy with the sours. Photo: Steven Richter
I expected to see nostalgia, maybe a few vintage tchotchskies, fading photographs, waiters dressed in vintage cutoffs and tennis shoes, maybe a Patrick Swayze lookalike swinging Jennifer Grey over his head in the aisles. The pale, neutral tones, marble table tops, bare blond struts, Baltic birch plywood fins and brass rods – architect Rafael de Cardenas’s fresh take on the l960’ canteen – seem cooly non-committal.
Four hungry, aggressive souls struggle to “share” three potato latkes. Photo: Lauren Bloomberg
Still it’s a kick hearing our African-American waiter explaining latkes, chopped duck-and- chicken liver, and touting the borscht salad. Everyone’s first choice at our post: potato latkes. Our friend Diane wants them with caviar. Her husband Gary prefers apple compote. Like the 60’s, I let the guy choose. The disc is crunchy, but almost lean, not super crisp and lushly greasy like Grandma’s. I kept my mouth shut since not tasting the fat is a virtue these days for sane folks after all. “Mrs. K’s Matzo Ball Soup” is a miracle of matzo ball engineering – the huge orbs incredibly light, the broth chickeny and sweet from essential onion and carrot.
Discover the lightness of being matzo balls in this marvelous soup. Photo: Gael Greene
Steven focuses on the pickles platter, and orders pickled herring two ways as well. The neighbors give the herring a fish eye though I assure them the flesh is firm pickled with onions and cream, and pleasantly tangy with wasabi yuzu kosho. It’s a challenge to get my team to try the tongue but we all happily pile pastrami and spicy salami with mustard on rye from the delicatessen board -- first-rate meats, done in-house by chef Mark Spangenthal.
Herring two ways: traditional pickled and Japanese. Photo: Steven Richter
Compared to the monstrous overstuffed sandwiches at the Carnegie, deli meats as tapas barely fill the corner of one cheek. For me the attempt to sell wild mushroom and fresh ricotta kreplach with walnut pesto and black peppered sheep’s milk cheese as if it were unsauced ravioli is a failure. Kreplach needs chicken soup. (Or even filled with meat and fried in chicken fat, a la Sammy’s Roumanian.)
Ready for wild mushroom, walnut pesto, sheep’s milk ricotta kreplach? Photo: Lauren Bloomberg
But given a cuisine memorialized as “death on a plate”, that leaves many other weapons of destruction to nibble on, like the two small knishes listed on the menu section called “for the table” --one stuffed with pastrami, fennel and Emmenthal --a second plump with spinach, mushroom and fontina. Imagine expaining fontina to grandma. For the table? I don’t think so. Each couple gets one half of each modest size knish. I take a bite and pass the remaining unidentifiable mush to Steven.
Still, these fluff balls of potato and stuff are superior to the concrete of today’s commercial knish once you accept the concept of refinement: like tossing the kasha varnishkes with quinoa instead of buckwheat groats and crusting the salmon with crushed falafel. Alas the potato kugel is over-gentrified. It desperately needs a dose of chicken fat. “Now I know the difference between schmaltz and schmutz,” Gary solemnly announces.
Roumanian steak, mean’n’lean potato kugel, fabulous duck schmaltz fries. Photo: Steven Richter
I might not ever come back on my own, partly because it’s a trek, partly because I’ve already heard the punch line. But should a friend insist I’d be happy enough with the wonderfully meaty Roumanian skirt steak, one of my favorite cuts, cloaked in caramelized onions. The meat is chewy and rare, served with roasted garlic and a stylish wild mushroom knish I can ignore. Red-wine braised flanken style short ribs are rich and meaty too, though the Brussel sprouts scattered on the plate need to be cooked, unlike the pan roasted sprouts served as a side. They are perfect.
Red-wine braised flanken-style short ribs are rich and meaty. Photo: Gael Greene
The chef poaches his wild halibut gefilte fish like a foie gras torchon and serves it in two discs. Tarted up with micro arugula and a few dabs of parsley vinaigrette, it’s undeniably elegant and good enough, though someone forgot to put horseradish into the beet tartare. That strikes me as almost anti-semitic. The deconstructed borscht salad shows up belatedly on our second visit – very modish but with more potatoes than beets.
I must confess I have a soft spot for Jeffrey Chodorow, not just because he is an advertiser and a long time supporter of Citymeals-on-Wheels. I was possibly the only critic who liked his much maligned Kobe Club. And I feel everyone has been picking on him because he had the audacity to protest the devastating reviews in a full page Times ad. I love that he never stops trying.
Gentrifying borscht belt cuisine in partnership with Zach Kutsher, a fourth generation of the resort family who worked there as a youth, backed by entrepreneur Alan Wilzig and ad man Richard Kirshenbaum must have sounded like fun. And perhaps there’s a claque lusting for memories guaranteed to swarm there: ravenous waves of boomers who went to the Kutsher family camps and seniors who worked as waiters or lifeguards whose doctors still let them eat schmaltz. Will they make the detour to Tribeca? Wouldn’t midtown make more sense? Backer Wilzig (he says he spent three summers as a Kutsher’s lifeguard) pushed for Tribeca where he lives because it’s family oriented just like Kutsher’s.
Chocolate babka bread pudding with pear in brandied caramel sauce. Photo: Gael Greene
Zach Kutsher took a restaurant management course at the Institute of Culinary education when he suddenly decided to switch careers. But the floor smarts Chodorow should be providing were definitely invisible on my second visit when twice we had to grab a busboy and beg him to send our waiter. Indeed managers pace the back room watching. But whatever they do see, it’s not the delinquency of waiters.
Our quartet last week ended the evening in the corner of neglect, attacking the tall chunk of seven layer Devil’s food cake ($13 for two) with four spoons. Refreshingly old-fashioned cake, not oozing on the plate, with rich frosting to savor, milk chocolate sauce to scrape up, and marvelous mocha ice cream to fill my mouth and let melt on my tongue before belatedly alerting my friends: “Try the ice cream. It’s amazing.” I only regret missing the cookie platter. My new assistant, Insatiable-in-training, reports that’s a definite high too.
186 Franklin Street between Hudson and Greenwich Streets. 212 431 0606. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 pm to midnight.Friday and Saturday till 1 am. Sunday dinner 5 to 10 pm. Lunch and brunch coming soon.