Three years ago, on an otherwise ordinary Sunday night, I ate the first spoonful of the matzo ball that changed my life: Such flavor, this soup! my Eastern European forebears would have said. What mazel to eat like this! It was 180 degrees from what those little nuclear golfballs so often are: misshapen orbs composed of matzo meal, eggs and what most keepers of the holiday would swear is the main active ingredient in Imodium.
The highest compliment in most families viv-a-vis this totemic Passover staple is to praise its lightness; my guess is that perhaps five or six Jews in history—max—have commented on the actual flavor of a matzo ball prior to assessing its weight. They are, in this regard, the food world’s equivalent of the photon: Their primary purpose is to transmit a sense of light and little else. But these beauties whipped up by Chef Mitch Prensky of Supper? They were a revelation in the actual Biblical sense: They changed the scaffolding of my religio-philosophical system and made me question much of what had come before that first bite.
Supper uses club soda and egg white for kosher leavening agents in their matzo balls, Prensky tells me: “And we always make it almost like it’s a quenelle, like a very light soufflé in a sense. And then we just poach the soufflé batter.” He also adds a bit of truffle oil, which of course helps, as does the phenomenal chicken broth that they’re served in.
Supper’s Seder dishes, then—served only on the first two nights of the holiday, though one or two Passover specials, like duck confit fried matzo and Supper’s now-legendary potato latkes, will likely be making appearances as specials even after the Seders—generally use the traditional Eastern European Jewish foodways as their starting point and inspiration, though, of course, with a chef’s touch. “These menus and dishes are dishes that my grandmother cooked, and my mother cooked. These are very much ... traditional, Ashkenazi Jewish Eastern European Seder food,” Prensky says, adding, “What we do is we take really great classic things, and we’ll execute them really well, and then we kind of take them up a little bit and make them more self-actualized versions of themselves.”
Just as appealing but on the other side of the coin is what Chef Michael Solomonov does at Zahav. He mines the Seph-ardic culinary traditions, rooting his Passover menu, which will be offered until the holiday ends next Tuesday, in foods that are occasionally a bit more exotic than what most Philadelphia-area bubbes serve. Dishes like hummus with crispy lamb tongue, for instance. Those will be joined by exotic riffs on more familiar items: Solomonov’s matzo balls are seasoned with Yemenite curry and served in a braised beef broth perfumed with cilantro. His fried matzo—matzah brie—is stuffed with English peas and walnuts, topped with chicken livers and anointed with charoset, a sweet concoction of apples, nuts, sweet wine and spices. Instead of gefilte fish, Solomonov is offering salt-cod cakes fried up in matzo meal and accompanied by pickled cucumbers, onion, fresh horseradish and English peas.
If it all sounds like it diverges a bit from tradition, it does. “We’re not a Seder, you know, it’s not somebody’s house,” he says. “We’re a restaurant.” He points out that, because this menu will be running throughout the holiday and isn’t written to fit into the traditional progression of foods of the first two Passover nights’ ritual meal, he has a bit more leeway.
Supper and Zahav, then, represent both ends of the spectrum of what Philadelphians—Jewish or not—can treat themselves to this week. And the beauty of this range is that neither one is better than the other, more “correct.” Rather, they represent yet another example of how diverse and ambitious our local restaurant scene is, even when it comes to a holiday notorious for its deadly heavy dishes and food-coma-inducing meals. (Neither of which, for the record, will be caused by Prensky’s or Solomonov’s offerings.)
In addition to these two, it’s worth stopping by London Grill as well. Aside from the two Seders they held earlier in the week, key dishes from that menu are available throughout the holiday, as well as special cocktails that have been crafted in honor of it. The “Manischewitz martini” seems especially daring. And La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount is offering a Mexican twist on the holiday, with dishes like wild king salmon tostada with jicama, mango, pineapple and malanga chips. Le Castagne is offering a four-course menu throughout the holiday featuring such Jewish-Italian dishes as carciofo alla giuda, a phenomenal artichoke preparation; matzo with three decadent spreads, including a chestnut charoset and an eggplant caponata; matzah gnocchi with bresola and peas; and more.
Wherever you dine, whatever twists or homages to tradition local restaurants offer, you’ll likely eat well at them all—far better, probably, than you ever imagined for a holiday that forbids leavened foods. To which I offer a hearty l’chaim.
Vodka? Gin? You Can Kosher That
During Passover, the entire family of spirits distilled from grains are forbidden. This puts a strain on my people tantamount to what I imagine the Exodus must have been like: An entire week without a cocktail at 5 o’clock? It’s a shonda! Thank goodness, then, for San Francisco-based Distillery No. 209. They’ve built a solid reputation for their spirits, but only a couple years back began offering the Kosher for Passover versions of their vodka and gin that I’ve enjoyed so much.
The base of each is sugarcane, and the entire process has the Orthodox Union seal of approval. The vodka, incredibly smooth and balanced, is pleasantly fruity on the nose, with citrus and light melon aromas. It has a velvety texture with a subtle sense of sweetness in the background. I’d be thrilled to drink this either on its own or in a cocktail, and throughout the year.
The gin is also exceptionally clean, with aromas hinting at springtime flowers, cucumbers, and light spice, and flavors that remind me of bread, lime, orange oil, and a hint of spice with a lingering herb note on the finish.
Both of them are a testament to the fact that Kosher for Passover tipples don’t have to sacrifice flavor in order to adhere to the law. Quite the contrary in the case of these two: The religious restrictions, and the workarounds that the team at Distillery No. 209 had to find, have resulted in spirits that are as well-crafted, thoughtful and enjoyable as any I’ve had recently, Kosher for Passover or not.
They’re not available in Pennsylvania stores, but—while I would never dream of suggesting that you bootleg bottles of questionable legality over our region’s highways and bridges, side-stepping the PLCB just as it finally seems to be going through the early stages of its deeply lamentable death-throes—they are available in N.J. Just so you know.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014