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Several encouraging things were immediately apparent when Milkyway Café opened several months ago in my neighborhood, which is predominantly populated by people who walk to synagogue wearing fur hats and floor-length wool clothes in August. The most optimistic note was that the restaurant replaced Adam's Ribs, a kosher joint serving "barbecue" that, tastewise, bore about as much resemblance to real pit-cooked Texas brisket as Velveeta does to cheese. Also quite clear from its name was that Milkyway would be a dairy restaurant. It is, but instead of standard ricotta/farmer's cheese breakfast blintzes, there are sweet dessert blintzes awash in ice cream and chocolate syrup, or savory blintzes with stuff like onions, mushrooms, and cream sauces. And in place of potato pancakes, there are pastas. The restaurant itself, though indeed dairy, describes its cuisine as "Israeli-Italian," with an emphasis on fresh vegetables and nutritious foods.
Virtually everything is homemade, from the complex continental-style tortes, to the bread and the herb butter that comes with it, to the cheeses (even the mozzarella sticks -- and bar-food fans know these always are frozen). Not quite so encouraging, to one whose food priority is taste rather than tradition and religious rules, was that Milkyway is kosher. In theory there's no reason why kosher cuisine can't be fabulous; in practice though, I've generally found it not to be so. That goes for the wine as well. Again, there's no reason kosher plonk needs to be as appallingly awful as so much of it is; my partner insists she drank some very good wines during a recent trip to Israel. We've had no luck finding the stuff here, though. Perhaps, like Portuguese vinho verde, it doesn't travel well. Or maybe the problem is a difference in priorities. After looking at a 507-page Passover dietary-laws book, it seems apparent that when the emphasis is on keeping non-Jews and non-observant Jews from touching one's religious-ritual wine -- even with rubber gloves on -- indeed with ensuring they haven't so much as seen the wine through sealed bottles (the rabbi recommends buying in sealed cases) ... well, there isn't much time left in the day to think about details like how the wine tastes.
In fact Milkyway's wine selection is not likely to convert any skeptic -- and didn't seem like a very promising start to dinner, either. The wine list totals seven bottles, only two of which are minimally drinkable: a red and a white Yarden, both almost as interesting as any generic French or Italian gallon-jug wine but much more expensive. Heineken is the most exciting of four beers offered.
On the positive side, a meal at Milkyway is a great time to begin that temporary temperance program, because the selection of nonalcoholic drinks is good. The orange and grapefruit juices are freshly squeezed, espresso is satisfyingly strong, milkshakes are rich and comfortingly unhealthy, smoothies can be customized with ice cream and homemade whipped cream for those who are more comfortable pretending to be healthy, and Perrier is available. Best of all is limonana, a homemade lightly sweetened lemonade flavored with fresh mint. In fact Milkyway's limonana ventures beyond merely refreshing into addicting. You can't have just one.
This was true of several solid food items, too, most dramatically the potato and onion bourekas. These seemed virtually identical to Turkish börekler (savory stuffed turnovers wrapped in thinly rolled dough), which in turn are similar to phyllo-wrapped Greek spanakopita. The wrapping of Milkyway's supersize bourekas, which come one per serving, was richer, almost a French puff pastry, and the mashed potato-fried onion filling, which I feared would be leaden, was so ethereally whipped that my table polished off the entire plate in a minute and clamored for more. A boureka with three cheeses plus mushrooms and onions also was tasty, though not as swoon-inducing as the mashed-potato model.
Of nine fish dishes, we tried red snapper "Français." This is a preparation style I try to avoid, since it usually means a heavily breaded soggy fish sitting in a puddle of lemon juice and grease. Milkyway's was lovely, with light breading; perfectly fresh, perfectly sautéed moist and delicate fish; and a beautiful citrus-wine beurre blanc.
Wild mushroom pasta was another winner. Big chunks of at least three types of mushroom generously dotted a beautifully balanced Marsala wine-flavor cream sauce that was rich but not overly dense. It came atop linguine (fettuccine or angel hair were alternatives for all nine of Milkyway's pasta preparations) that two of us would've preferred cooked about a minute less but the other two diners thought was perfect. At any rate it definitely was al dente, not the overboiled mush one often finds in unauthentically Italian restaurants.
Greatest hits (along with the blessedly unobtrusive but interesting background music) were those strange-sounding blintzes. Milkyway's blintz casings are what sometimes are referred to as homestyle -- which is accurate if your home is in Brittany and your family members are distantly related to chef Paul Bocuse. They are not those nasty, thin-yet-shoe-leather-tough skins enclosing most American deli and frozen blintzes; rather, they are delicate French-style crêpes. And the fillings we tried were fantastic. A cheese blintz, stuffed with feta and mozzarella as well as ricotta and topped with white cream sauce and melted cheese, sounds like heavy cooking but was in fact remarkably subtle. And the potato-and-fried-onion blintzes were even better than the potato-onion bourekas, owing to their elegant wrapper. Even though we live in the drug capital of the United States, there's no need to bother with the illegal stuff when you can become addicted to such a blintz and a limonana. And another. And another.
Admittedly there were some missteps at Milkyway. The mozzarella in the "Caprice" (meant, most likely, to be Caprese, since ingredients were tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and the cheese) salad might have been homemade, but it also was hard, and the tomatoes were part greenish and part mushy. The tomatoes in a "bruchetta" (bruschetta, I assume) appetizer were unripe, and vinegar overwhelmed everything, including the soggy toasted baguette slices -- which should have been either much more toasted, or denser bread from the get-go. Onion rings were homemade but they weren't whole rings of deep-fried breaded onion; instead they were those circular rings of onion-flavor fritter batter. An omelet ordered at a later brunch visit was large and puffy but dry as dust, despite an overly moist and fairly flavorless mushroom, onion, and cheese filling. And the "fresh vegetables" served with numerous menu items turned out to be shredded iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, and a little raw onion, with no salad dressing.
For the most part, though, Milkyway is just what my neighborhood needs: a casual California-style hangout with big booths, where one can read the Sunday paper while eating a great brunch -- which happens to be kosher.