An abbreviated form of this article appeared in the August 26, 2006 Jewish Advocate.
Area restaurateurs cater to discriminating tastes
By Susie Davidson
You’ll have a haimisch as well as a hearty culinary experience at certain fine-dining hotspots around town, where several Jewish owners and chefs have earned their places among Boston’s top restaurateurs.
And you’ll have a prime opportunity to enjoy their offerings this weekend, as Boston’s Restaurant Week continues through Saturday night. This year, the annual tasting fest ran both Aug. 13-18 and 20-25, with lunches for $20.06 and dinners for $30.06 at over 120 area locations (some restaurants extend the prix fixe another week, so do ask!).
You can begin in Brookline Village at La Morra, opened in 2003 by Jennifer and Josh Ziskin. The two-level restaurant, which seats 72 diners, serves traditional Northern Italian with a seasonal menu, and features an authentic Tuscan style wood grill. The name, La Morra, comes from the Italian city where Josh Ziskin learned classic techniques by which to prepare simple and fresh ingredients.
“Josh and I have a connected past as far as Jewish history goes,” said Jen Ziskin, who grew up in a fairly religious home in Plymouth, where her family help found Beth Jacob Synagogue. Her mother and Josh’s mother, who were both Plymouth natives, fixed the two up after college, she recalled. “Josh lived in Brookline and did not belong to a synagogue. His family would travel to Beth Jacob for the High Holidays to be with his grandmother.” For all those years, Jen sat in the row behind Josh. “I knew him, not well, but I always thought he was cute!” she said.
The two were married by Rabbi Lawrence Silverman from Beth Jacob in 1997, and are active members of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton. Their oldest son, Julian, graduated from the pre-school, where sons Lucas and Miles are currently enrolled. Jen is a Board Member as well as Chair of the Pre-School Committee.
La Morra is now serving a Sunday Brunch. Selections from their Restaurant Week(s) dinner menu, which is be four courses instead of three, include Grilled Potato Salad with Green Beans, Pesto and Mozzarella; Yellow Pepper Soup A Cibreo; Lasagna with Spinach and Ricotta, Roasted Fish with Zucchini and Oven Dried Tomatoes; Bistecca con Polenta, Roasted Chicken with Corn Ragu and, of course, Dolce!
Famed local dining icon Roger Berkowitz’s Legal Sea Foods has over 30 family-owned restaurants across the country, and a mail-order business. Berkowitz’ local roots stem to 1950 in Inman Square, Cambridge, when his father, George, opened a fish market next to his grandfather Harry’s “Legal Cash Market” grocery store. There, customers received “Legal Stamps,” which predated S & H Green Stamps, with their purchases. In 1968, George and his wife Harriet opened a family-style seafood restaurant, with picnic tables and paper plates, next to the fish market.
Roger Berkowitz grew up in Waltham and Lexington, where he began setting a name for himself at an early age. “I think I set the record for getting thrown off school buses,” he recalled in a phone interview. “I got kicked off both. the Temple Isaiah and then the Temple Emunah buses, where I sat in the back and got into trouble,” he said.
And he impressed back then, too. Berkowitz remembered finishing a Hebrew School final exam with 300 multiple choice questions in under five minutes. “My teacher, I have to say, was a bit naïve,” he said. “I think I also set that record.”
However, Berkowitz shaped up under parental admonition. “I suppose the high point in my Hebrew education was after my Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emunah,” he said. “My parents said I had to continue from late May until June to finish the year, and I dutifully complied.”
Berkowitz’ youngest child, his daughter, actually begged to go to Hebrew School, by contrast. “The only seats open were in the back of the class,” he said, “and I had an incredible sense of déjà vu there.” The teacher asked everyone to write down the one thing they liked best about Sunday School. He wrote for his daughter, “that it is only one day a week.” While they snickered, the teacher asked, “do you have something Mr. Berkowitz, that you’d like to share with the class?” - while another parent looked at him disapprovingly.
“Time had stood still,” he said.
Berkowitz’ eldest son was bar mitzvahed at the Western Wall in Israel 14 years ago. His middle son reached the milestone via Aish HaTorah. “I was most impressed with how they connected to the younger Jewish population,” said Berkowitz, who has done fundraisers for the religious association. “My son was disenchanted with Hebrew School . I had met these young rabbis from Aish, and they tutored him.” His son ended up with a bar mitzvah in the Orthodox fashion. “It was simpler ceremony, but one that was more meaningful,” Berkowitz recalled. “They made Judaism more relevant.”
He has also been involved with the Chabad Center of Natick. He is a former board member of the ADL, and has done wine auctions raising funds for CJP and Israel Bonds.
Berkowitz’ latest ventures are the Legal Test Kitchens. The Logan Airport LTK, located in Terminal A, boasts a red granite bar, large TVs, and jet-engine speed - grab a full meal in 15 minutes, or a ready-made sandwich. LTK in the seaport district is a state-of-the-art spot with a high-tech environment: changing mood lighting, digital menus, WiFi access, WiFi POS stations, IPOD docks at the table, and multicultural menu selections grouped into Bare (sushi and raw bar), Nosh (appetizers), Simmer (soups), Nibble (small plates), Refresh (salads) and Comfort (Main Dishes).
The Park Square and Copley Place Legals participated in Restaurant Week.
Anything new on the menu, the Advocate asked? (Though what could possibly surpass their bluefish with mustard, or their chocolate cake with sorbet and Scharfenberger chocolate sauce?) “Our Master of Wines, Sandy Block, is one of 22 in the U.S.” he replied. “We’re going to be looking into more wines from Israel.”
High-tech is also revolutionizing the scene over at Skipjack’s, where owner Jeff Senior has just invented a device that makes wine ordering easy, while eliminating apprehension. The “Wine Skipper” is a hand held, internet equipped wireless device that is delivered to tables along with a hard copy wine list. The Skipper, which is about the size and width of an etch-a-sketch, is open to Skipjack’s home page, which links to the websites of each featured vineyard. Diners can then view visuals and information on wine and food pairing suggestions.
“Skipjack's is really on to something here,” said local restaurant public relations honorary maven Chris Haynes. “They are bringing the wine list in to the digital age and making ordering wine dummy-proof!” (But can you check your email?)
Senior has also incorporated innovations like "Big Names You Know" and "Names You Should Know" sections onto the wine list, which won the prestigious "Award of Excellence" for outstanding wine lists at each of their three locations by Wine Spectator Magazine. “These take away the cognitive dissonance, and list wines that are fabulous or that diners may never have heard about,” says Haynes. “It also gives the wine credibility, because the restaurant has chosen them based on taste, not price.”
Senior’s father was born in Russia, and his mother in Germany. Both immigrated to South Africa to escape anti-Semitism in Europe when they were very young, before World War II. “I was born in South Africa and immigrated to America in 1960,” he said. “My parents left South Africa so their children would not be growing up in an apartheid country.”
Senior’s father served in the Israeli army in 1948 as a doctor. “Being Jewish, and more importantly, a Zionist, has always been paramount to me,” he said. “The family aspect of Jewish life has always been important in my business,” he added. “My mother, my wife, and last but not least my daughter, have all have worked, or work with me in the restaurant.”
Foodies in the know flock to Radius, Via Matta and Great Bay, all headed by Executive Chef and co-owner Michael Schlow and business partner Christopher Myers. Schlow was named one of the "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine Magazine and won the 2000 James Beard Award of Excellence for "Best Chef in the Northeast." Other awards include Sante Magazine's Chef of the Year and the Culinary Award for Excellence from Robert Mondavi.
Schlow and restaurant partner Christopher Myers opened Radius in 1999. The Financial District area restaurant, which features modern French cuisine, was included in Gourmet Magazine's 50 Best American Restaurants and Conde Nast Traveler’s Top 50 Most Exciting Restaurants in the World. Via Matta, opened by Schlow and Myers in 2002 in Park Square, was included in Gourmet Magazine’s "America's Best Restaurants" and Esquire Magazine’s "Best New Restaurants in America." Its Italian cuisine reflects the regions of Piedmont, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.
Great Bay, Schlow and Meyers’ seafood spot located in the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, was named Esquire Magazine’s Best New Restaurant and Boston Magazine’s Best Seafood Restaurant in Boston Magazine in 2003, its first year.
Schlow, a Brooklyn, New York native now living in Boston, attended high school in Somerville, New Jersey. “Our parents instilled Jewish pride in us from the time we were born,“ he recalled. “Living in Brooklyn, we were among many Jews, but going to school in Somerville NJ, I believe I was one of six in a class of 325.”
A aversion to Hebrew School seems to run within Boston chefs. “I used to hide in the bushes of our house while the carpool came to pick me up,” he said. “Eventually, my mother found out and that came to a halt.” Schlow had had missed so many bar mitzvah classes that he needed a tutor. “I had to cram for my big day with three classes a week,” he said. “I guess the joke was on me.”
Although he received a baseball scholarship for college, he opted to enroll at the Academy of Culinary Arts in New Jersey. He went on to train at various New York restaurants, focusing mainly on classic Italian cooking but specializing in Asian and French styles as well while at 75 Main Restaurant in the Hamptons. Following successful restaurant launches in Manhattan and New Jersey, he moved to Boston in 1995 to re-open Café Louis, where he won numerous awards over a three-year period.
Schlow has cooked for CJP and other Judaic causes, but says his philanthropy is usually not based on religion, but on need and his own beliefs. “I've always made myself available for fundraising that is central to Jewish life,“ he said, “but I've also given my time to causes like "Mother Caroline's Home for Little Wanderers.”
Boston is a harmonious environment for Schlow. “Here, I find a gentle balance of all nationalities and religions. It’s one of the things I like best about settling here,” he said. In his frequent national and global travels, he said, he is often offended by the behavior he witnesses. “Blame ignorance and stupidity if you like, but it makes you question what creates this unbelievable hatred towards anyone who is slightly different,“ he said. “For me, being Jewish is not something that I necessarily think about consciously on a daily basis, it's just part of who I am, what makes me, me and always will be.”
His 2005 cookbook, “It’s About Time,” features over 150 practical yet excellent recipes, as well as anecdotes, tips and information. In addition to international culinary events, he has appeared on cable and network television food programs, including the CBS Morning Show, and has participated in myriad charity events. On two occasions, he cooked for Julia Child on her birthday.
Take a trip up to the North Shore and dine at Paul and Louise Peterseil’s Red Rock Bistro in Swampscott. Paul, an Everett native, is from the Nathan’s Herring family. “Red Rock is one of the very best fine dining places,” said David Cohen of “Dining with David,” who bestowed his 2005 and 2006 Dining with David Awards on Red Rock. “They are a multi-year award winner,” he said. “This is THE place to go when not coming into Boston proper.”
Last but definitely not least are Sunset Grill & Tap, Big City, and Sunset Cantina in Allston and Boston, by Boston University. Yes, they are favored student haunts perhaps outside the fine dining category, but the food is adventurous, colorful and plentiful for all ages to enjoy. Try the ice cream pizza at Big City, the multicolored fiesta bowls of chips and dip and turkey tips at the Sunset. All three offer innovative, wholesome sides and hearty mealtime fare.
“I was born in a stock pot and raised in a bain marie,” says Kadish. “That’s an old restaurant cliché, but it‘s not far off.” (A bain marie is a double boiler.). Kadish credits his grandmother for inspiring his love of food. “Her priority was always to make sure we got enough chicken soup, bagels and lox, roast potted chicken, corned beef and all the classic Jewish deli fare that has nearly become extinct,” he recalled. Kadish’s grandfather, who founded the Penny Candy House in Nantasket Beach (“back in the day”), was close friends with the owner of Brookline’s Golden Temple restaurant, a favorite along with the old Jack & Marion’s deli. “I was an A+ student there,” he said.
Kadish’s father worked in the hotel business. “I would be left in the restaurants to stay out of trouble,” he said, adding, “that’s why I’m still in my places 10 hours a day - it still keeps me out of trouble.” Chefs from the Polynesian Village and the Rib Room were nearly sacred ground to Kadish. “I would have the most amazing religious experiences there, unlike at Hebrew School,” he said.
“I may be a few sandwiches shy of a picnic,” he said. “You’ll sense this when you experience my insane beer selection at the 19-year old Sunset Grill & Tap.” (There are 122 taps, and 400 bottles.) The Sunset has won Best of Boston Magazine and Improper Bostonian awards. Kadish was just nominated “Boston’s Biggest ‘Beer Nut’” on the Sunday night Beer Nutz program on the INHD TV network. He is regularly cited on the Phantom Gourmet as well.
“I like to think that when you order the Sunset South of the Border Fiesta Nacho, it’s done in the Jewish-Mexican style,” he said. If he says so… but in any event, try the fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, steam beer burgers, juicy steak tips, ice cream pizza, mudslide mud pie, and many other Kadish signature items.
“Did I mention we do Bar Mitzvahs?” he asked.
email@example.com. You can make reservations online at Open Table. Reservations are recommended. Hours of Operation are Monday-Thursday: 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday Brunch is served from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and Sunday dinner from 5:30-9 p.m.
La Morra is located at 48 Boylston St. in Brookline Village, Brookline, (617) 739-0007, fax: (617) 739-0038,
Michael Schlow’s three restaurants and locations are Great Bay, at the Hotel Commonwealth, 500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, (617) 933-5000, www.greatbayrestaurant.com; Radius, at 8 High St., Boston, (617) 426-1234,www.radiusrestaurant.com; and Via Matta: The Heritage on the Garden, at 79 Park Plaza, Boston, (617) 422-0008, www.viamattarestaurant.com.
Red Rock Bistro and Bar is at 141 Humphrey St., Swampscott (781) 595-1414.
There are three Skipjack's locations: Back Bay, located at 199 Clarendon St., Boston, (617) 536-3500 (Lunch and Dinner from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.); Newton, 55 Needham St. (617) 964-4244; (Lunch and Dinner from 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.); and Natick, 1400 Worcester Rd. (Route 9), (508) 628-9900 (Lunch from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.), Dinner Sunday-Thursday from (5 p.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m.-11 p.m.). On Sundays, the Winiker Orchestra Jazz Brunch is held at the Back Bay location from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sunset Cantina is located at 916 Commonwealth Ave., Brookline (617) 731-8646. Sunset Grille & Tap is at 130 Brighton Ave., Boston, (617) 254-1331. Big City is at 138 Brighton Ave. Allston, (617) 782-2020.