Monday, October 4, 2010

Judah Mediterranean Grille

We were not overly excited by the opening of ANOTHER Israeli-style restaurant in Philadelphia -- we have two of them in the Northeast alone. How much schwarma and falafel can you eat?  So we didn't run over to try the Judah Mediterranean Grille when it opened without any fanfare this summer.  

In fact, at the start, we didn't even know it was kosher. We spotted the prominent "Judah" sign at the Krewstown Shopping Center as we pulled out of Beautyland one day. But we hadn't heard any buzz about a new kosher restaurant opening. There are plenty of non-kosher places with Jewish-sounding names -- the popular high scale Zahav and the low scale Bubbie's Brisket in Center City can be misleading.  

However Judah is supervised by Rabbi Moshe Arviv  of  the Sephardi Beit HaRambam Congregation.  My daughter Odie and I decided to give it a try yesterday as a way of extending a pleasant afternoon at the Philadelphia Opera Company's performance of Otello. The opera ended around 5:30 and by the time we returned to the NE and arrived at Judah it was almost 7.

Although the normal dinner hour had passed, the place was still crowded, and I think we were the only native English-speakers. Clearly here is a fleishic (basari) rival to the dairy Expresso Cafe

We were seated immediately and welcomed by our polite young server, who offered us ice water when we chose not to order a drink. A plate of picked vegetables (radishes, carrots, peppers) was set on the table to keep us occupied while we studied the menu.

I hadn't eaten since breakfast, so I schwarma platter. The menu runs the gamut from conventional Israeli fast food in pita to a pricey rib steak.  The platter came with two sides -- I chose roasted zucchini and couscous. Odie went with cabbage soup - one of three soups available -- and a Jerusalem salad. 

The soup arrived with two soups and a very large bowl. Odie ate most of it and left the rest to me.  If you like cabbage, it was delicious. Her Jerusalem salad ($10) proved to be lettuce and traditional Israeli square-cut vegetables with four falafel balls and pita chips. The pita chips, as well as the toasted pitot served with the meal, were fresh, and she suggested that the chips be package, they were so good. The salad was so large that, already full from the soup, she asked to take the rest home.

My schwarma ($18) consisted of a very large portion of turkey meat, nicely spiced but overly salted.  The zucchini, on the other hand, was perfectly roasted and served with roasted red peppers.  As a devotee of the Atkins diet, I don't eat couscous, but I took one bite as a sample. It was the large Israeli couscous and, again, perfectly seasoned. Odie commented that it was much better than the packaged couscous I usually serve, and we packed that up with her salad.

We were too full for dessert, although the menu contained some interesting items including an ice cream dish with cherry tomato sauce. The restaurant does not offer American coffee, only Turkish and Israeli Nescafe (instant). Which was a disappointment. 

We also ordered a bowl of lentil soup for my husband, who stayed home to work on his school lesson plants for the week.  He commented on the excellent flavor, but balked when I told him that the meal had come to $39 for the two of us. I had to agree.

Although the service was excellent, the portions large, and the food well-prepared and flavorful, if I am going to spend that much on dinner, I prefer someplace quiet with a more sophisticated atmosphere.  I think I would reserve the noisy storefront Judah for lunch with the kids.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Foodless in Chicago

I flew out to Chicago last month for an overnight business trip, expecting to enjoy some great kosher food while I was there.

I didn't bother to pack extra food. I knew that Chicago had an excellent selection of kosher restaurants, including several that had opened since I left the Midwest 10 years ago. A friend had recommended the Taboun Grill, and I was looking forward to a meal there. My kids begged me to bring them burgers from Ken's Diner, although I assured them I had no intention of schlepping food back on the plane.

In the end, I learned a difficult lesson -- always bring food because you never know what is going to happen when you travel these days.

The weather in Philadelphia was perfect when I boarded the plane. So, I would learn, was the weather in Chicago. Unfortunately, there was a problem somewhere in between, because our totally packed plane sat on the tarmac for two hours. Thanks to the new federal regulations, at that time they had to let us off. We spent an hour in the airport -- a chance to pick up a bag of almonds to munch on -- then we boarded again and finally took off.

Instead of arriving in Chicago at 5:15 -- the perfect dinner hour -- we pulled in at 8:30.  I called Taboun Grill to see how late they were open.  "We don't seat anyone after 9:15," I was told.  "Look," I explained. "My plane was three hours late. I haven't had anything except a bag of nuts since breakfast, and I still have to get my bags."

"We don't seat anyone after 9:15," the voice repeated.

By the time I collected my luggage -- it was a one-day trip, but I was bringing materials for the event I was running -- it was 9:00.  I had lived in Chicago for two years; I knew there was no way I could get from O'Hare to Skokie in 15 minutes. And I didn't even have my car yet.

I won't go into the hassle of picking up the car my client had reserved.  Or the time it took me to figure out how to start a keyless ignition. It was 10 by the time I was on my way, and no one had rachmones on me or my situation.  I called Ken's.  I called Subway. No one cared that a Jew from out of town had come in late and needed something to eat.

The guy at Subway was cleaning up.  No he wouldn't wait 10 minutes for me to arrive and make me a sandwich, but he suggested I try the Dunkin' Donuts across the street.

Which I ended up doing, in an act of desperation. I've been on the Atkins Diet for over 6 years. I don't eat white flour or sugar i.e. doughnuts, bagels, croissants, etc. My spirits rose a bit when I entered Dunkin' Donuts when the menu offered eggs, soy meat and a few other healthier items. These hopes were dashed when the counter person stepped out and announced, "I'm out of everything except bagels and doughnuts." I was in tears by then, but I ordered a doughnut and a cup of coffee.

I was reminded of an incident in Philadelphia a few months ago. I had finished my writing workshop around 8 one evening. I hadn't brought extra food and had dashed to the workshop straight there from work. I went to the Glatt Deli on 12th St., turned the door handle and found it was closed. "Are  you hungry," said a voice.  I looked up and saw a  Sephardi gentleman halfway down the street.

He came back, unlocked the door, fixed me a sandwich of hummas and salad in a pita and refused to take my money.  That's how they treat you in Philadelphia.

My event went well. I picked up some more almonds to tide me over.  But I won't forget how I was treated in Chicago. And next time, I'll bring my own food and skip the restaurants, even if my plane arrives on time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Russian Are Coming - Kosher Style

For the past 10 years, Steve Klipach has run the popular Russian restaurant Palace Royal in NE Philadelphia. The upscale eatery was a gathering place for Philly's large immigrant community and hosted many a wedding and bar mitzvah celebration.

Then, about three years ago, Klipach started studying Judaism with Rabbi Boruch Shlain, a member of the Russian Kollel (a fulltime Torah study program for married men) at Congregation Beth Solomon in the Far Northeast. The learning changed his life.

"I could no longer serve nonkosher food," said Klipach.

So a month ago, the men from the Kollel and other friends of Klipach's from Congregation Beth Solomon kashered the Palace Royal, and the restaurant reopened under the supervision of the Orthodox Vaad of Philadelphia

Klipach dismissed any thought that he might lose business now that he is closed from Friday afternoon until after sundown Saturday night. "Hashem will help us," he told me, adding that people are very happy to have another fine-dining option in Philadelphia.

And he is right.

Klipach pointed out that the food is not strictly Russian, but is European-style. "It is very fancy," he says proudly. And most nights, he has live music - a first for a Philadelphia kosher restaurant.

I  have not been to the Palace Royal myself, but my husband and son ate there Sunday night as part of a male bonding day. They both had the 10-oz T-bone steak, which my husband insists was larger than 10 ounces. The steak was cooked just the way he liked it (medium), and he had the grilled vegetables as a side dish. My son had the basmati rice. The bill came to $42 for the pair - a lot less than we paid for a steak dinner in NY.

The Palace Royal also has a lunch special for $13, which includes soup, salad and a choice of entrees (not the steak though). They open at noon and stay open until 10 most nights, until midnight on Sunday and after Shabbat, when he is currently opening at 8.

The Palace Royal is a welcome addition to the Philadelphia kosher dining scene.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Kosher Super Bowl Sunday

I will have to miss the Super Bowl this year. A good friend and neighbor with no sports consciousness has scheduled her daughter's wedding for tomorrow evening. So I won't heading heading to the Expresso Cafe and Sushi on Castor Ave. and enjoying a great dinner while I watch the game on Sharon's wide-screen TV. Instead, I'll be schlepping to Lakewood for another boring chicken dinner and checking the game every 5 minutes on my Blackberry -- as the sister of a New Orleans residents, I'm pulling for the Saints.

I really regret this. The Expresso Cafe is my favorite spot in Philadelphia. It is always clean, the food is fresh and Sharon Abergel, who owns the place with his wife Liat, is a welcoming host. The only problem I ever have is sometimes they run out of my favorite dish -- Portabella Mushrooms with Mozzarella. Express Cafe is all dairy, but they have such a wide variety of offerings that even my kids like it here. The vegetable soup is a favorite with everyone. The salads are so large I usually end up taking the extras home.

I recently scheduled a business meeting at the cafe, and my guest emailed me the next day to say he was still thinking of the portobella mushrooms. When the mushrooms are not available, I also love the Carpacho -- eggplants, feta cheese and pesto in filo dough.

The cafe is also the only place in town where you can get a late breakfast. I've met my girlfriends there on a Sunday morning for bagels, lox, omelets and my favorite, shakshuka - a spicey Israeli omelet with peppers and tomatoes. If Sharon would open at 8 on Sunday morning so we could have a regular breakfast, we would be thrilled.

But, as someone reminded me, the guy has to sleep. Unlike every other kosher place on Castor Ave., the cafe is open until 10:30 every night but Friday. He also opens after Shabbat and stays open until 11. Even Starbucks doesn't keep those hours.

So that's what I'll be missing tomorrow night in the boondocks of Lakewood.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Kosher Place to Watch the Fightin' Phils

Today is our 30th wedding anniversary. My husband has been having dreams about the steak at Le Marais ever since our New York adventure, and we talked about making a return appearance. We also considered Max and David's, Philadelphia's only fine dining kosher restaurant. But the Phillies are in the playoffs and could clinch the National League title tonight, so we plan to have a late meal at the Expresso Cafe and Sushi Bar (7814 Castor Ave.) and enjoy a dairy meal while we cheer for our team in front of a wide-screen TV that beats what we have at home.

Although baseball isn't owner Sharon Abergel's sport, we're betting that even the Israelis who frequent this clean, well-managed hangout will be watching the Phils tonight.
Before the Expresso Cafe opened in 2004, if you were hungry and kept kosher, there was no place to go after 9 p.m. Now, you can get anything from a rich dessert to an omelet until midnight. My only wish is that Sharon would open earlier Sunday morning (he opens at 10 - too late when my girlfriends and I want to gather for breakfast).

Everything at the Expresso Cafe is always fresh. The salads are tasty - no wilted lettuce or over-ripe veggies. My favorite main dishes are the Carpaccio - eggplant and feta cheese in filo pastry - and the Portobello Mushrooms with Mozzarella. My kids love the vegetable soup and the stuffed potatoes. My husband likes the sushi. I wish the coffee were stronger, but that is my problem with every restaurant that isn't Starbucks.
The Expresso Cafe is clean and even the plates are attractive. I am comfortable taking my non-Jewish friends here, and all the women love Sharon. Some people don't like the sports on the big TV, but for me, this is a draw.

If the Phils make the series, we are thinking about paying a visit to JJ Elephant, a new kosher sports cafe in Chester Spring - not exactly the epi-center of the Jewish community. I haven't heard of anyone who has been there. They have coffee, teas and hot chocolate, baked good and soup - not a well-rounded menu. But the TV is bigger than Sharon's, so we may take the hour drive for a series game. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Philly's Finest, But Not So Bad

When we're home in Philadelphia, we rarely dine at the finest places the way we do on vacation. But, still, it's nice to know that we have that option, and we're glad that there are restaurants where we're not ashamed to take out-of-town guests or guests who are not Jewish or don't keep kosher. It wasn't always like this.

When we moved here in 2000, there were two kosher places in the Northeast -
Holyland Pizza and Dragon Inn. And there was an Israeli place with a certification that no one accepted, so it finally went out of business. Still, it seemed like paradise to us after eight years in Milwaukee, which only offered a dairy restaurant housed in the Jewish nursing home. The food ranged from boring to awful, and the place wasn't open on Sundays or evenings - the times when most people want to go out and eat.

The Dragon Inn was a typical Chinese restaurant. It was a step above pizza and sufficed for anniversary and Mothers' Day dinner. But it went out of business a few years later because of a dispute among the owners.

The Holyland Pizza eventually spawned the
Holyland Grill - a meat restaurant several blocks away. Both places are your typical kosher equivalent of McDonalds. The food is fast, edible but not great and there is no atmosphere. But your kids can run around the whole time, and no one cares. Well, sometimes the food is fast, I remember a Thursday night at the Pizza about nine years ago with my aunt when we waited about an hour to get served. Fortunately she loved watching little kids run around. But it's not the time of place you want to take your boss.

My boss did take me there once for my birthday with the rest of our department. I think she was ready to call the health department by the end of the meal. I've never seen anything offensive there - hair in the food or insects. But it has that kind of atmosphere.

The pizza at Holyland Pizza is very good. As is the calzone. A few times I've ordered the mozzarella sticks. They get them frozen, and they aren't always careful to cook them all the way through. They have recently added sushi to the menu, which my daughter and son-in-law report is the best in town.

Service is about what you'd expect. There is usually one staff person at the counter - a sullen teenager, often Israeli. They take your order as if they are doing you a big favor.

A couple of years ago, they remodeled. It was a definite improvement, but for some reason they carpeted the floor. Big mistake for a pizza shop with a million little kids running around.

Now that my kids are grown I never eat there. But we do takeout pizza because the pizza, as I've said, is really good. No one at my house eats sushi.

The Holyland Grill is an attempt to be a step higher in the restaurant food chain. Instead of ordering at the counter, they have wait service. The food is not fancy - schwarma, falafel, mixed grill, Philly steak sandwiches (without cheese) and fried chicken. The Israeli main dishes are not bad. The fried chicken is pretty tasteless. The vegetables are always overcooked, and the salad bar looks like it's been sitting around for too long.
They also have a Chinese menu - after the Dragon Inn closed they hired the cook. I didn't care for the brown sauce everything was cooked in at the Dragon Inn, so I don't like it any better here. But the Sesame Chicken and Garlic Chicken are tasty.

Fortunately, we have many more choices now, which I'll start on next time. If you've eaten at any of these places and have your own opinions, please let me know.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eating Kosher in The Big Easy Wasn't Hard

A few weeks ago, Air Tran sent me an email offering me a $64 fare (each way) to New Orleans. I had wanted to visit my brother all summer, but each time I checked, the fares in the $400 range. As soon as the email hit my inbox, I was on the phone with my brother, who was happy to have me, just worried about feeding me as he doesn't keep a kosher home.

He need not have worried. We dined very well in New Orleans, a city that prides itself on its cuisine - a very Jewish attitude. My first day, we went to lunch at the Kosher Cajun New York Deli. Kosher Cajun is a bookstore, deli, and kosher grocery under one roof. The atmosphere is grocery store with tables, but if you're hungry, you're hungry.

I ordered a Ruben Sandwich (hot corned beef on rye with Russian dressing and sauerkraut). My brother had just corned beef, and his friend Edmund had a Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast. The corned beef was sliced just right and arrived warm and fragrant. The sandwich wasn't as thick as you get in New York, but, hey, it must cost them a fortune to bring the corned beef down there. The chicken sandwich was moist and tender, and everyone was happy.

Kosher Cajun also had an extensive wine and kosher liquor section, including a $180 bottle of imported French brandy I'd never seen before. And be assured, New York is only the name of the place. This is New Orleans, and the decor is pure LSU purple and gold. You can pick up Saints and Hornets kippot by the register. My husband was thrilled because I picked up kosher beef jerky made by RJ's Kosher Jerky in California. He's been longing for it for years, and I had to go to New Orleans to find it.

The only disappointment was they only prepare authentic New Orleans dishes - gumbo, jumbalaya, red beans and rice - for special orders and for a minimum of 20 people for $120. My brother promised that the next time I visit, he'll have a party and order in.

In the evening we went to Casablanca, a higher end Moroccan restaurant. People on complain that Casablanca is expensive, but it was not any higher than nice places in other cities and way less than we paid in New York. Edmund began his meal with mushroom soup, which was a brown, clear broth filled with mushrooms. My brother has had a phobia about mushrooms since he was a small child, but he no longer cries and pitches a fit when they appear on the table. He was patient while Edmund enjoyed his soup and relieved when they took the bowl away. Philip and I both had Chicken Marrakech - a boneless breast marinated in herbs and grilled. Edmund had Fish Tangine. The meals came with a salad. Philip and I had mixed vegetables as a side dish, and Edmund had Moroccan rice, which was rice with middle eastern spices. The portions were large, and everything was fresh. We all enjoyed our meal. Our young Russian waitress was attentive and friendly. But everyone I met in New Orleans was friendly. Maybe all the grouchy people left during Katrina and didn't come back.

Both restaurants were clean and not the kind of places I had to cringe when I went in with people who didn't have to eat at a kosher restaurant. In fact, Philip said that after eating there a few months ago with my brother-in-law, he went back to Casablanca himself just because he liked the food.

Next time, it'll be home in Philadelphia.