Restaurant Reviews

Kosher Got You Down

"Are you Jewish?" the guy behind the counter at Tea for Two asked skeptically. "No," I admitted, "but I was born in Brooklyn. That's about the same thing."

"Nah, I can always tell," he laughed. My non-Jewishness, he went on to explain, was noticeable because it was a novelty; evidently the vast majority of Tea for Two's patrons, in the five months since a couple of fellow ex-Brooklynites opened the small, easily overlooked café, have been "New York tourists, who found us because they follow the dietary laws." Tea for Two is kosher.

Since kosher restaurant prices tend to be relatively high, and religious restrictions take priority over taste, I generally don't tend to seek out such places myself. But Tea for Two's menu looked interesting, not just for a kosher café but for any café.

It was, at least what I tried -- which was neither the big food (full entrées of stuff like ziti and salmon teriyaki) nor the pizzas, both so noncaféish that they seemed clearly aimed at folks who can't take advantage of the neighborhood's two exquisite wood-oven pizzerias. But some light bites more suited to the luncheonette setting were not just the usual: a tuna wrap tastier than most because of spicy sauce as well as mayo; a variation on the usual plate of smoked salmon, substituting gravlax with capers and a terrific honey mustard sauce; and, from the list of eight salads, a surprise called "health salad" -- like the standard Jewish deli mix of sugary vinegared cabbage, carrots, and bell peppers, but here mesclun topped with generous amounts of fresh strawberries and mangoes, dried cranberries, and walnuts, with an appealingly sweet/tangy yogurt-based strawberry dressing.

What I'd go back for, though, were the sushi rolls, far more imaginative than those at Epicure just half a block away -- and I say this as Epi's most loyal fan. The Atlantic, for instance, was the sort of tropical fusion maki one would expect from a glam "nouvelle sushi" spot like Sushi Samba, not a little luncheonette: tuna, avocado, and mango. The Valentine contained a combination I've often talked traditional sushi bars into making for me, because it's a terrific mix of rich smoothness and crunch, but usually not on the menu: salmon and yellowtail plus avocado and cucumber. The yellowtail actually could've been better (it didn't taste bad, but was too soft and fairly flavorless, like defrosted fish), but the salmon was lovely marbled stuff, and the rolls came topped with alternately red or green-dyed tobiko "caviar" -- most festive.

Because religious laws prohibit shellfish or scaleless fish, Tea uses usual imitation crab plus more unusual faux shrimp and eel. I can't report on the "shrimp" since it was left out of my order, but the "eel," while not as unctuous as the real thing, had a meaty character, similar to much drier deli kippered salmon; it didn't make for a great nigiri but worked well in a Deep Sea maki combined with cucumbers plus some odder ingredients: mushroom, deep-fried shallot slivers, and an atypically fruity, rather than teriyaki-like, eel sauce.

Even weirder and better was a "chef's special" seaweedless El Bow roll: sizable bits of salmon plus shallots, jalapeños, shiso leaf, scallion, and fresh mozzarella, baked and then generously drizzled with three sauces (eel, chili, and Japanese mayo). The roll's cooked just briefly so the salmon's still rare, and the mozzarella melts into a topping similar to preserved tofu but tastier.

One more surprise: Though the room is cheerful, it's really more lunch counter/diner than café -- but there's a hidden, hedged-in courtyard out back that more closely matches the mod mood of the food.

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Pamela Robin Brandt