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Haute Kosher Cuisine at Shallots, New York
It's Not Chopped Liver

Last March, at a two-star Michelin restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, we found ourselves seated near a group of people who apparently had come from some kind of business meeting.  Among them was a young man sporting a yarmulke -- the little skullcap that marks the observant Jewish male -- whose diction betrayed New York origins. Some time later, we met him in the lounge and after the customary Jewish-geography exchange, one of us mentioned how we noticed he hadn’t touched a morsel of food. The young man smiled and told us that an observer of the laws of kashruth, he did not feel comfortable eating anything in this non-kosher restaurant. We had assumed as much. Imagine, we thought, in all of Paris, could not the members of his group find a place that would meet their culinary requirements and at the same time accommodate this young man’s needs?

Had they been in midtown Manhattan, of course, they could have dined at Shallots where the environment is elegant, the cuisine sophisticated, and the laws of kashruth are strictly observed. That New York needed such a restaurant was something J. Michael Fried and Alan Hirmes had long realized. But it took a trip to Chicago and a couple of chance encounters for them to make it happen.

On a Sunday evening several years ago, the two men who are partners in a real estate development company were on a plane about to land at O’Hare airport. “Okay, where are we eating tonight?” Michael asked Alan, looking around in the hopes of spotting someone in a yarmulke who might direct them to a kosher restaurant. They  managed to get a few recommendations but all were in Skokie on the outskirts of Chicago, and so they resigned themselves, as was the case more often than not, to dining in a non-kosher restaurant where their options would, of necessity, be limited. Then just as they were leaving the terminal, a woman tapped Michael on the shoulder. “I just remembered. There’s a new kosher restaurant on the north end near Lincoln Park. But I’m not sure of the name. It’s something like Salad’s or Ballad’s.”

At that point someone else chimed in: “No, it’s Shallots, and it’s on Park Street.” Immediately, Michael and Alan hailed a cab and headed over. “The place was packed,” Michael said. “There wasn’t an empty table so we ate at the bar. But we had a wonderful meal. The restaurant was everything that we’d seen in high-end non-kosher restaurants in terms of cuisine, ambience, and service. There were dishes like lamb tagine, duck confit, sautéed sweetbreads on the menu, and whatever was on the menu, we could order.

“Every once in a while, this young woman in a chef’s outfit would come out to have a Diet Coke,” Michael continued. “That was Laura Frankel, the chef and proprietor. We got to talking. She was very gregarious and charming, and in the course of the evening, we learned her story.”

What they learned was that Laura Frankel was a classically-trained,  award-winning chef who had worked at many of Chicago’s best restaurants before retiring to raise a family. By the time her children began school and she was ready to return to a professional life, she and her husband had become observant Jews and members of Chicago’s orthodox community. Realizing she couldn’t prepare foods she couldn’t taste, Laura decided to open her own restaurant where she would serve the dishes she’d been trained to prepare while following kosher dietary laws.

That became Shallots. It opened in 1999 and that same year was ranked the third best new restaurant in Chicago.

Laura explained her concept to the pair of attentive diners: a focus on regional cuisine, specifically the Mediterranean rim, but with a bigger palate than just southern France or just Italian or just Spanish. Her vision included any cuisine that borders the Mediterranean. In this way, the possibilities of Tunisian, Moroccan, Greek, and Turkish  flavors were available to her as well.

Michael and Alan were smitten. “We’d never seen a place like this,” Michael told us. “The kosher restaurants in New York were either too low- end or they were steak houses where the environment was on the loud side.

J. Michael Fried, one of Shallots’ owners. He knew New York needed a high-end kosher restaurant. - click to enlarge
J. Michael Fried, one of Shallots’ owners. He knew New York needed a high-end kosher restaurant.
"We were always struggling to find places to bring our business clients where quality kosher food was served in a pleasant ambience.

Now, having found Laura, we began talking to her about the possibility of bringing her concept of a high-end, upscale, haute cuisine restaurant that happens to be kosher to New York City.”

Shallots New York – a classic David Rockwell interior - click to enlarge Michael and Alan found space in the Sony Building Atrium, a David Rockwell interior that seats 175, with all the classic Rockwell touches: warm, muted tones of taupe, olive, and brown, comfortable and well-spaced velveteen banquettes, recessed Japanese ceiling lights, and added touches of playful glass art: rectangles that look like abstract aquariums lining the walls. By late summer 2000, they were on their way.

“If you recall, that was a time of full employment. It was before the bubble burst, the bull market was running,” Michael told us. “To find a manager, a maitre d’ was nearly impossible. We didn’t know anything about running a restaurant, how the front of the house communicates with the back, how you handle specials, how you learn the system of table and seat numbers so the food comes to the one who ordered it. We were beginning to feel we were confirming our own long-held philosophy – which we had patently disregarded in opening Shallots -- one shouldn’t be in a business he knows nothing about.”

But today, nearly two years later, the kinks have clearly been worked out. When we entered Shallots on a Thursday evening in May, we were immediately greeted by an impeccably attired maitre d’ whose French-accented English reinforced an impression of continental elegance. Later we learned the Marseillies-born Marc Elmalem had come to Shallots by way of Lutece. His credentials include working for the legendary Henri Soule who, as many an expert has vouched, is the man chiefly responsible for bringing haute cuisine to New York.

Although not himself observant, Marc comes from a religious family and is thoroughly familiar with the laws of kashruth. “This restaurant uses only non-dairy products, but it is nevertheless on the level of a three-star restaurant in terms of food preparation, the nature of the service, the presentation, and the people we serve,” he said. “Just in the last month, Joe Lieberman, Bibe Natanyahu, and the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations have dined with us.”

Marc Elmalem, Shallots’ elegant and French maitre d’ - click to enlarge
Marc Elmalem, Shallots’ elegant and French maitre d’
Marc led us to a comfortable banquette and while we enjoyed some Galvanina, a kosher sparkling water from Italy – kosher in the sense it has not come in contact with any non-kosher properties – reviewed Shallots’ limited but quality wine list with us.

He has a hand in acquiring the constantly changing kosher vintages which include a nice selection of contemporary Californians, some from Australia and Chile, a few from Israel, and goodly number from France which we went with, sampling a dry and clear Chardonnay from Macon Peronne, a fruity Baron Herzog chenin blanc, and a deep, rich Baron Herzog carbernet sauvignon – all of which were fine accompaniments to a multi-flavored meal that began with an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and yellow tomato with avocado mayonnaise. 

We declined the offerings of breads and rolls in favor of Laura’s flatbreads which look like humongous Chinese noodles but are crisp, salty, and impossible to stop eating. As we had recently experienced in Rome, little dishes of olive oil were served in place of butter. There was also a garlicy hummus and a spicy Moroccan dip made of red peppers, molasses, roasted walnuts, tomatoes, and chilies that was truly sensational. We could have made a meal of the flatbread and dips alone.

But Shallots’ spring menu beckoned with an appealing array of appetizers and entrees like very rare and thin rectangles of seared yellowfin tuna, gnocchi in a pesto sauce, and slices of smoked salmon that had been cured like pastrami giving the dish an interesting hickory-smoked taste. The tender and flavorful marinated rib steak served with a Bordelaise sauce was accompanied by pate de foie gras from Israel (!); a succulent roasted Cornish game hen came with mushrooms, caramelized pearl onions, and fingerling potatoes.

We learned from Michael that as family responsibilities keep Laura in Chicago most of the time, a full time chef was needed on the premises. “We went through a couple before finding Damian Sansonetti about a year and half ago. He’s young, energetic and creative, experimenting as many young chefs do,” Michael said.

Shallots’ Pittsburgh-born chef de cuisine Damian Sansonetti - click to enlarge
Shallots’ Pittsburgh-born chef de cuisine Damian Sansonetti
The young chef de cuisine showed us around Shallot’s gleaming and orderly kitchen with its separate aisles of stoves for fish and meats and team of cooks. “I love working on the line with these guys,” he said. “We are a team in the kitchen.

“And I work as a team with Laura,” he added. “She trained me; she speaks through me. I feel her presence a lot. She introduced me to the North African cuisines which people don’t usually think about. The foods we prepare are very healthy, and they also present a tremendous variety of flavors and combinations. We’ll do Tunisian dishes, sometimes we’ll run tapas. But it’s all regionally based. No South American, no Asian, no Eastern European. Those flavors aren’t here.”

We wondered how Damian dealt with having a full time meshgiach (the person who certifies that food, its preparation, and service, is kosher) around. But apparently he posed no problem. “The meshgiach actually turned out to be very helpful in terms of telling me what kashruth was all about,” he said. “It’s like I’m going to school. I find it a challenge to work within these rules.”

Within those rules and without any dairy substitutes -- Laura does not believe in substitutes -- we had some tantalizing desserts including a Belgian chocolate cake with a liquid center and a lemon sorbet  - - perhaps the best ever.  

Throughout our dinner we noticed a lively party was under way across the nearly filled-to-capacity dining room, even though a disturbing sound level never reached our table. Later Michael told us it was composed of ten people from an investment banking firm, two of whom were kosher. “They come here because the eight non-kosher diners know there is no diminution of the quality of the food they’ll have, while the two kosher people can be comfortable. That’s the purpose for which we created our restaurant, to permit a firm to entertain both kosher and non-kosher clients or associates in a setting where the quality of food, ambience and service equals any other three-star restaurant in the city.”

Now, if only we had the name of the young man we met in Paris . . .

          

Shallots New York
550 Madison Avenue (between East 55th and 56th Streets)
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 212-833-7800
Web: http://www.shallotsny.com 

Open for Lunch Monday through Friday;

Dinner Sunday through Thursday; Dinner on Saturday October through April; and Sunday Brunch;

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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