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Corned Pork Belly at a Jewish Restaurant?
A restaurant doesn’t have to be kosher to be Jewish. But how treif can it be and still evoke Yiddishkeit?
That’s the fine line walked by Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov at their newest restaurant, Abe Fisher, which opens Sept. 2 in Center City.
“I showed the menu over the weekend to my in-laws, and they weren’t exactly excited about the treif,” Cook said. “We are poking a little fun at the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food at Christmas, and the Jewish fascination with treif.”
That “little fun” includes a menu structured like an old-fashioned Chinese-American restaurant, with diners confronting three separate columns of vegetable, fish and meat choices. While the bulk of the 19 current dishes don’t include treif, a shrimp fried rice studded with bits of kosher salami and a corned pork belly accompanied by Manischewitz-spiked mustard stand out. Even the dessert section gets in on the act with a bacon-and-egg cream.
This is not the first Jewish-themed restaurant flaunting pork and shellfish. In hipster Williamsburg, a heavily Chasidic community in Brooklyn, is Traif, opened four years ago by a nice Jewish boy from North Jersey, Jason Marcus. In Los Angeles, The Gorbals broke barriers a few months earlier with its bacon-wrapped matzah balls (not just any bacon, but the highly regarded Nueske’s from Wisconsin).
Philadelphia’s entry into this category isn’t as brazen as Traif, but it’s just as bold.
Which leads us back to the question: Can a restaurant serve pork and still be Jewish?
Cook thinks so.
“For as many Jews as there are in America, there are at least as many ways of keeping kosher,” said Cook, a rabbi’s son who ate shrimp growing up but didn’t touch pork until college.
The Jewish fascination with treif that Cook sees as a draw gets no argument from David Sax, author of Save the Deli and, more recently, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes But Fed Up with Fondue.
Jewish-themed restaurants like Abe Fisher, Traif and The Gorbals receive a lot of attention in the media and the Jewish community because of their pork and shellfish-centric menu items. But ultimately, Sax contends, these establishments succeed or fail based on the quality and creativity of the cooking.
The pork and shrimp items “will attract a certain Jewish population because people want to try them,” he observed. But that won’t keep patrons coming back since “the Jews who eat that will go to a Chinese restaurant anyway.”
“The impact of pork belly pastrami or shrimp fades over time,” said Sax. The food on Abe Fisher's menu "that will be better known and influence other chefs will be more traditional, like the borscht tartare or hot smoked sable."
Cook agrees. “We’re trying to honor these traditions and make them more relevant to what’s going on today,” he said. But for people who do eat pork, “if our dish reminds them of both the corned beef they grew up with and something new, then that captures what we’re trying to do.”
There is a danger in being too true to your inspiration, at least as a businessman, Cook emphasized.
The challenge is “competing with the memory of what you grew up with," whether it be a pizza, a hamburger, a bowl of mushroom barley soup or a piece of Romanian tenderloin.
“The problem with trying to do something too faithfully and too authentically is that nothing will convince you, the diner, that it’s as good as what you grew up with, even if mine is at least as good or even better,” said Cook. “You’ve got to do something new to break free of that mold. We want that echo of the past, but we want it to be new.”
The borscht tartare and hot smoked sable that intrigue Sax are just two of the more traditional items on the menu, which has an approach similar to that of the tasting menu at Cook and Solomonov’s Zahav, the less flagrantly non-kosher keystone establishment in their Cook+Solo Restaurant group. At Abe Fisher, a four-course prix fixe will be offered for $39.
“At Zahav, 99 percent of our dissatisfied customers order a la carte,” said Cook. “Those who order the prix fixe menu are almost always satisfied with the value, the amount of food, the overall experience. We don’t want to force you to the tasting menu, but we want to make it as easy as possible to enjoy the full experience.”
Where Zahav celebrates Israeli food and its eastern Mediterranean roots, Abe Fisher is thoroughly Ashkenazi, even if it is blatantly non-kosher.
“Michael and I have been successfully exploring Israeli cuisine at Zahav,” said Cook, “but there’s a whole other side of Jewish cooking, the one most Americans — and most American Jews — associate with Jewishness. It’s the food we grew up with.” That includes Israel-born, Pittsburgh-raised Solomonov, whose maternal family is Ashkenazi.
“We feel very tied to the traditions,” said Cook.
Abe Fisher, 1623 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Reservations at Open Table or, after Sept. 2, by phone, 215-876-0088.