By Lisa Schiffman
Medallions of Beef Tournedo on a bed of spinach with potato latkes in a mushroom sauce and a banana creme puff pastry were two specials on the menu one recent Saturday night at the Bistro Grill in Great Neck, a Glatt kosher French steakhouse and combination sushi bar.
Drawing a mixed crowd, the Bistro Grill is also popular with officers from the local police precinct, who like to order from the restaurant’s takeout kosher sushi menu.
Inside, the tone was set by romantic candlelit sconces, which cast a soft glow on the faces of the diners sitting at elegantly appointed tables set with fine bone china and crystal. Carefully appointed oil paintings, formal draperies, and an ornate 18th-century chest on display in the center of the room lent an air of distinction.
The elegant surroundings belied the fact that this was indeed a kosher restaurant. For many people, the concept that a kosher restaurant could strive to serve gourmet fare was unimaginable. Dining kosher evoked images of noisy delicatessens with outsized salamis hanging from the ceiling, and a limited menu of calorie-laden and heavy dishes. Any ambiance created was unintentional, grudgingly provided by harried and frequently rude waiters.
Times have changed, however, according to Bela Flom, author of “The Authoritative New York City Kosher Dining Guide,” who sees a new breed of more affluent kosher consumers who have in the past 10 years demanded more diversity and higher quality when dining out.
“You see people spending $100 to $200 on a meal. As more upscale restaurants open, more consumers learn what good food is,” she said.
Flom’s decision to publish the guidebook, now in its sixth edition, originated about seven years ago, after she spent a day searching in vain for a kosher restaurant around Lincoln Center. Since then, she has seen many changes, both in the number and type of kosher restaurants. People now perceive kosher products as having a higher quality, and that perception has extended to kosher dining, she said.
Restaurants such as the Bistro Grill cater to a growing population of Orthodox Jews who are well-traveled, who have experienced European dining, and who, as a result, have acquired more discerning palates.
In 1984, when Menachem Lubinsky founded Integrated Marketing, a marketing agency for the kosher foods industry, there were few quality dining choices for kosher consumers. Since then, dozens of kosher restaurants offering a variety of ethnic cuisines have opened, including French, Japanese, Italian and Chinese, he said.
The result, the development of a new American Jewish cuisine, has come to the attention of both Jew and non-Jew alike. “As far as market trends in the last five years, we have seen the upscaling of kosher restaurants, the view being that it is quality food that happens to be Kosher,” said Lubinsky.
In the new kosher restaurants, non-kosher recipes are adapted to Jewish dietary laws to create gourmet kosher food that is also healthy. According to the laws of kashrut, only the meat of domesticated animals that have split hooves and have been slaughtered by a certified butcher are approved for consumption. Fish must have scales and fins to be kosher, and meat and dairy products cannot be mixed.
A longtime Jewish enclave with a growing Orthodox population, Great Neck has experienced a rapid growth in kosher restaurants, such as the Bistro Grill. The Bistro Grill, however, offers a truly unique addition not found in many restaurants: in addition to serving both steak and sushi, there is also a kosher butcher shop on the premises.
Owner Raphy Bihon says that the reason for combining the two cuisines is to give diners the option of choosing either a light or heavy meal. “In the past 10 years sushi has burst into the Jewish community like no other cuisine. It is very chic, light and easy to eat, and is able to be prepared immediately. That is what people love,” said Bihon. “When you’re hungry and want something light, there is nothing better than a sushi,” he added.
Roughly 20 percent of the restaurant’s customers are non-Jewish, according to Bihon. “The clientele are affluent people who enjoy good food. People come from all over – Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Five Towns.”
A French staff is essential, Bihon said, to accommodate his customers. He feels passionately about working to upgrade the image of kosher cuisine: “We have to dig in and challenge ourselves to bring up the quality to emulate other non-kosher restaurants,” he said.
One such challenge is working within kashrut’s limitations, which designates only the upper body of the cow as kosher. From the ribs, or “Cote de Boeuf,” Binot explained, three main cuts are extracted: the rib eye, the tournedo, and the “Surprise.” Following non-kosher steakhouses such as Peter Luger and Morton’s of Chicago, Bihon said that the Bistro Grill dry-ages its meat to give it tenderness.
“I want people to taste high-quality European food,” said Serge Gorge, the Bistro Grill’s chef and Binot’s partner. Gorge, who received his culinary degree in Switzerland, had worked throughout Europe and Israel before coming to the United States.
Every chef has a specialty, and his are sauces, Gorge said. “For every steak, there is a special sauce to bring out its flavor, for every dessert, a coulis.” At the Bistro Grill, for every steak served, there is an accompanying béarnaise, shallot or mushroom sauce for enhancement.
The ingredients used for preparing the sauces are the same as in a non-kosher kitchen, Gorge said, except that margarine, soy and rice milk are substituted for butter or cream. Sometimes the kosher version tastes better. For instance, he claims, the creme caramel custard comes out lighter and contains less fat by using soy milk.
Decor is as important as the food served in the new kosher restaurants. “It’s built into people’s systems that kosher and beauty don’t go hand in hand,” said Bihon, who has tried to achieve a classical look in his restaurant.
Down the street from the Bistro Grill, Soprano’s, serving steak and Northern Italian cuisine, is also Glatt kosher. Owner Mark Pourlavin, who recently opened a second Soprano’s restaurant in Woodmere, originally owned two restaurants in the Manhattan that were not kosher.
Soprano’s’ chef, who Pourlavin brought with him from Manhattan, finds ways to work around the limitations of kashrut. Cheese, which cannot be mixed with meat, and shellfish, which is not kosher, are not served. Steaks are marinated in different ways to achieve tenderness.
Bison, venison and quail are popular entrees, he said. Bison steak, served char-grilled with portobello mushrooms over a brandy and peppercorn sauce, and venison with shallots in a red wine sauce, are customer favorites.