If you've ever wondered what kosher really means, check out the following joke, in which Moses speaks to God from atop Mount Sinai:
God: And remember, Moses, in the laws of keeping kosher, never cook a calf in its mother's milk. It is cruel.
Moses: Ohhhhhh! So you're saying we should never eat milk and meat together.
God: No, what I'm saying is, never cook a calf in its mother's milk.
Moses: Oh, Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs.
God: No, Moses, what I'm saying is, don't cook a calf in its mother's milk!
Moses: Oh, Lord, please don't strike me down for my stupidity. What you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat and if we make a mistake we have to bury that dish outside....
God: Moses, do whatever the hell you want ... and the rest is history.
Okay, so the anecdote itself ain't exactly kosher. But if you're familiar with the somewhat strict Jewish dietary laws, it can be a point well taken: Keeping kosher often is up to interpretation.
Historically speaking, though, some points can't be taken lightly. Observant Jews simply will not mix milk and meat (including poultry). To do so is sacrilege, hence the separate plates that are subject to willful discard. They also won't eat pork, fish that doesn't have scales and fins (i.e., shellfish) or cook with ingredients that haven't been inspected (blessed) by a licensed rabbi. In short keeping kosher is a complicated enough process in one's own home. But doing it in a restaurant is next to impossible. Kosher Jews, particularly in Miami where we have large populations of Orthodox, Lubavitch, and Hasidic Jews, generally will only dine in kosher restaurants.
Sounds logical, doesn't it? The problem occurs within the restaurants themselves; for some reason our local kosher eateries seem to be more cursed than blessed. They've been almost unilaterally shabby (read: no décor to speak of), undiversified (read: delicatessen), and terrible (read: terrible).
I'm not sure why restriction has to equal sacrifice, especially when it comes to the taste department. Gourmet home cook Marlene Schimmel agrees. An observant Jew who has spent much time in Israel studying (and eating), she says she often feels like a second-class citizen when it comes to dining in Miami. "In Miami," Schimmel adds, "kosher means compromise. I can't take [kosher] company out. If I'm entertaining guests from out of town, I do it at home. "
Which is probably why her mouth figuratively dropped open when I told her about the newest trend in town: kosher cuisine, where the key word is cuisine. Indeed many of these restaurants -- Bissaleh, a Syrian/Egyptian place in Miami Beach, for example, or Vecherny Vostok, a Russian eatery in North Miami Beach -- you wouldn't even know were kosher unless you asked (or you read the license on the wall), which Schimmel notes should be the objective. "More people have become observant than before. Reform [Jews] are becoming kosher and wanting to know about Judaism; it's in to be Jewish. But the goal should be to draw in folks who aren't or who have no objection to it."
In other words kosher restaurants should focus on the flavor of the fare rather than the nature of the restrictions. Drew Rosen, chef and co-proprietor of Terrace Oceanside in Hallandale, agrees. He says his eatery, which serves items ranging from a soft duck taco with mango chutney to a rib steak marinated in bourbon and juniper berries, is a gourmet restaurant first, a kosher restaurant second. And he has the pedigree to prove it: Rosen earned his stripes at a variety of local places, including Mark's Place, Williams Island, and Scoozime Trattoria.
Simon "Giovanni" Cohen, proprietor of the two-month-old kosher Italian ristorante Medeterano Caffé & Bistro in Aventura, also believes in diversity for the observant population. An Israeli who lived in Italy for a decade, he cares enough about his fennel salad and farfalle with broccoli and garlic that he's employed chefs from Mezzaluna to prepare them.
Still, why would any restaurateur, unless he himself was kosher (as is Cohen), want to open a restaurant that the general public may think is not for them?
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A nonkosher Conservative Jew, Rosen argues that "it's the purest way of eating, because most of the bad oils and additives aren't kosher [and therefore can't be used]. You know exactly what you're getting. There's complete truth in menu." He also reasons that it's "a good choice for vegetarians, a good choice if you're lactose-intolerant" because if a restaurant serves meat, you can be sure there's no dairy in anything.
Schimmel might say the additive argument is bunk -- "Just because you pick up a kosher product doesn't mean you're getting something free of preservatives" -- but maintains that the dogma by which kosher food is judged is pretty formal. "When they [growers and markets] needed standards for organic food, they went to the kosher rabbis for advice." Which just might explain why both Terrace Oceanside and Medeterano Caffé & Bistro are not only kosher, they're organically oriented and environmentally correct. Suddenly we're kosher like California.
Rosen also is candid enough to say he's got a corner on the market, as is Sol Cohen, temporary manager of Medeterano. "There's no concept like this at all here. You can see the potential." Certainly the owners of Tani Guchi, a Japanese restaurant in North Miami, spotted the divine light after years of watching kosher neighbor Sara's clean up after the Sabbath. A year or so ago, the acclaimed sushi spot turned kosher, eliminated dairy from the menu, and currently is enjoying a brisk business.
When all is said and done, though, the kosher community is still craving a wider range of restaurants, and chefs should take advantage. Schimmel acknowledges that "kosher stores have been stocking expensive wines, so if people are willing to spend money on them you know they'll spend money on food." True. And then there's God's advice: "Do whatever the hell you want ... and the rest [will be] history."