To talk to Zach Kutsher is to become convinced that opening a Catskills-resort-themed restaurant in Tribeca, modernizing American Jewish cooking, one of the world’s most maligned cuisines, was the most reasonable thing in the world to do. But step back and look at those elements individually—the Catskills? Didn’t they shut down the year after people stopped putting Baby in a corner? And Jewish food? The stodgy, solid stuff you suffer through once a year at bubbe’s house? Or did you mean a deli?
But why would you put a deli in Tribeca, around the corner from the perennially wait-listing Locanda Verde and surrounded by a thousand other dimly lit Downtown hotspots, and why would you give it a birch-lined, soaring dining room with atomic-era brass light fixtures and soft white walls?
In Kutsher’s eyes, it all comes together. He is the heir to the Kutsher’s Country Club throne, the stalwart upstate summer resort/sleep away camp that was a haven for tristate Jews and non-Jews alike from its opening in 1907 to its heyday in the ’40s and ’50s and its nostalgic, elderly slide through the ’80s. He is truly to the manor born, though it wasn’t always clear he would end up assuming his crown. “There was no future in the industry” when he entered the workforce, he said. “I never wanted to get into it.”
Instead, Kutsher followed the now well-known millennial path of law school, corporate work, downsizing, re-evaluation, cooking school. But while most paths to the Institute of Culinary Education end up with a small business owner slinging cupcakes in South Williamsburg, Kutsher veered to hospitality, his genetic destiny.
“Over the years, I’d met so many people who had been to Kutsher’s. I’ve always been interested in food and its ability to speak to people, and this seemed like a way to tap into peoples’ emotional consciousness in a personally rewarding way,” he said.
Much has been written about the restaurant’s smart, amusing food at this point. The New York Times‘ Pete Wells likened it to Springtime for Hitler, the shock hit play-within-a-play in The Producers, and New York Magazine‘s Adam Platt labeled his astonishingly positive review “Building a Better Gefilte Fish.” Everybody had written off Jewish cooking, it seemed, except Kutsher himself and the restaurant’s chef, Mark Spangenfeld, who “has a lot of New York Times stars under his belt but is a nice Jewish boy from Great Neck.”
“We wanted to redefine, elevate and advance the cuisine,” he explained. That mantra informs the now-elegant disks of chopped wild halibut topped with microgreens in the aforementioned gefilte fish. You’re not going to forget that the Passover staple is what you’re eating, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the jellied balls floating in cloudy jars that roll out every year. Latkes come topped with three kinds of caviar, including a brightly sharp wasabi tobiko and a boldly salty salmon roe.
“We wanted to have fun with it,” Kutsher said. “You know, to call yourself farm-to-table- what does that mean? You can basically do whatever you want and call it American. We’ve given ourselves a challenge, real limitations to work within.”
Intelligently sourced ingredients is one key to the food’s success; it’s hard to mistreat the grilled Romanian skirt steak the way others do when you’re using prime meat—something no other restaurateurs bother to do for the much maligned cut. Mushrooms aren’t just brown flecks in gravy when they’re assorted wild varieties; they’re sautéed gently and featured prominently in the kreplach.
It’s all a resounding success with customers young and old, Kutsher’s regulars and goyim who’ve never heard of the place—save for one small, vocal contingent. “There are some people who, once you start making something they or their relatives make, you piss them off,” he laughed. “They feel the need to come up and tell you theirs is better.”
Still, on a Saturday night the restaurant is packed with families, couples on dates and groups of friends drinking from the well-curated cocktail list rife with housemade syrups and infused liquors, glossed up with names like the Bungalow Bunny and The Deep End.
“It’s like a bar mitzvah on steroids,” Kutsher said.
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