Imagine a perfect bite of raw, wild sockeye salmon, sprinkled with a smattering of the spice combination found on an “everything” bagel, two thin slices of celery, one or two micro sprouts on top, and a swoosh of avocado pureé at the bottom of the plate — giving it the mouthfeel of cream cheese. Add a glass of crisp chardonnay to go with it.
Now, imagine 23 more courses like this — each one small, but yes, 24 in total. The first 10 are fish, 11 through 22 are meat (with one lone vegetarian course thrown in), and the last two are dessert. Each has the same attention to detail, the same high-quality ingredients, the same use of negative space on the plate; each is matched with a wine chosen by a winemaker.
As if that weren’t enough, now imagine that the dinner and all of the wines are kosher.
An invitation to a meal like this doesn’t come around very often. I certainly had never been invited to one, kosher or otherwise, and I suppose few of you have been, either. Unless, of course, you’re one of the lucky 18 congregants of Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation who paid dearly for the privilege of attending this amazing affair, part of Beth Jacob’s annual fundraising auction.
Chef Isaac (Yitzchok) Bernstein, whom readers may remember as the force behind the kosher caterer Epic Bites, closed that business to take a job in New York. But things didn’t pan out, and after commuting back and forth to visit his wife and child, Bernstein is now living full-time in Oakland. He has been doing private dinners like this one (though with fewer courses) to make a living and is “aggressively” looking for a space to open a kosher restaurant. (He can be reached at email@example.com).
The 29-year-old chef has some investors lined up, though none yet are local. (He’s originally from New York, and so far, all of his investors are friends and family back East). He’d prefer the restaurant be in Oakland, but he’s open to Berkeley or San Francisco. He pictures a casual eatery by day that becomes high-end California-style at night, and it would do catering as well.
When asked why he thought he would be the right person to open a high-end kosher restaurant in the Bay Area, where every other one has failed (The Kitchen Table and Bar Ristorante Raphael, to name just two), Bernstein said, “Having a chef/owner is the only way to do it. That was the No. 1 problem with the other places, the chef and the owner weren’t the same person. No one is going to sweat like you sweat.”
But back to the 24-course tasting dinner. Bernstein, who attends Beth Jacob, offered the seats at these meals as an auction item, to raise money for the shul. There were two of these gluttonous gastronomic extravaganzas on two consecutive weekends, with 10 people each, and he invited me to the second one on Dec. 1. I had written about him before, and he wanted the meal documented.
Bernstein teamed up with fellow Beth Jacob congregant Jonathan Hajdu, the associate winemaker at Napa Valley’s Covenant kosher winery who also produces wines under his own labels. Hajdu chose all the wine pairings, which included offerings from Four Gates (the organic kosher winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains), numerous wines from Israel, a few from Europe, some of his own Brobdingnagian, Besomim and Makom wines, and what seemed like Covenant’s entire repertoire, including one bottle of Covenant’s Solomon label that goes for $150 a pop.
(I don’t want to question Hajdu’s wisdom in selecting that wine in terms of its pairing, but for the 22nd course? Given that people had already tasted 19 wines, opening the most expensive one at 1:15 a.m. when some people had gone home and others could hardly discern what they were tasting anymore, seemed almost criminal.)
Around course six, someone at the table asked meekly “Does anyone want a Diet Coke?” That was with 17 more courses to go.
The next morning, my husband and I agreed that Bernstein could have used a culinary editor. While some plates were beautiful, whimsical or genius, others had too many components and left us scratching our heads. I felt obligated to taste those last few courses, but by the end most of them went to waste, and I don’t think I need to tell you how much I hate to waste food.
Bernstein had several friends volunteering their help in the kitchen. He did much of the work on Thursday and Friday, and then had only an hour and a half to prepare on Saturday night between the end of Shabbat and the start of the dinner at 7:30 p.m.
While column space doesn’t allow for a description of each dish, I can go over some of the highlights. The fourth course, which featured hamachi (Japanese yellowtail) as the star protein, was served with cucumber slices that had been pickled in gin, with a touch of Australian finger lime on top. Bernstein passed a finger lime around so we could see it up close. Oblong in shape, and colored like a regular lime, when cut open, the fruit holds clear pearls or caviar-like droplets that taste like lime, no molecular gastronomy required.
Bernstein is a big proponent of what some consider edible science experiments. “When it comes down to it, I really just want to offer ‘good eats.’ Tasty food,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter if it is on fine china with $40-a-pound Japanese fish or if it’s a bowl of buttered pasta, I want it to be as compromise-free as possible. The best products possible without blaming the kosher aspect every time I can’t do something.”
Buttered pasta, ha. Since at a meal like this, butter is verboten, Bernstein used liberal quantities of duck and goose fat to add richness. And while the fine china was left in the cupboard, several courses were served on gray rectangular slabs, causing the host to remark, “I think we should replace all of our dinnerware with slate.”
Bernstein is a big proponent of the sous-vide machine. This particular dinner featured sous-vide veal and numerous vegetables cooked with the hot water bath treatment, since it makes them meltingly tender. One dish of raw tuna nestled between watermelon slices was brought to the table covered with plastic wrap that was removed tableside, because the contents had been treated with a smoke machine.
We also ate tomato leather that was made in a dehydrator, coffee and cardamom dirt, and carrot Styrofoam.
Most of the produce was organic and from local farms, sourced through Monterey Market, and whatever meat he could get came from Grow and Behold, a kosher meat company in New York that sources all of its meat from farms where the animals are sustainably raised.
A rib-eye carpaccio served with a cabernet-cherry tapenade, pistachios and a breaded and fried cube of bone marrow sent the man next to me into a reverie. “That carpaccio helped me believe in a benevolent God,” he exclaimed, both out loud and on his Facebook page, which he furiously updated with photos of each successive course. At one point, he asked one of his envious Facebook friends, “How’s your mac and cheese, b—- ?”
Bernstein admitted that 24 courses was an arbitrary number. He knew it was crazy, but crazier still, people went for it. A few dropped out along the way, and at the end, while one declared “Baruch HaShem! It’s coming to an end!” another bemoaned the fact that she didn’t wear a toga.
Of course I felt obligated to stay for the finale — I was working, after all, and I take my journalistic responsibility seriously — though it’s interesting to watch my handwritten notes from the evening go from fine to almost unintelligible. I fell on the Santoku for you, reader, and I paid the price, as I didn’t eat again until the next evening, and only began to feel normal a few days later. But I know you’re not the least bit sorry for me.
There’s no question that Bernstein is a tremendous talent, and clearly has drive and passion. If anyone can make a kosher fine dining restaurant succeed in the Bay Area, I believe he can.
For a course-by-course menu with wine pairings of the dinner I attended, visit the online version of this story at www.jweekly.com.
SMALL BITES: As part of its Chanukah celebration, San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav held a kugel contest on Dec. 9. It kind of goes without saying that this event was not for the gluten or lactose intolerant, nor was it in any way low fat.
There were 12 entries, including a chocolate kugel and several versions of the classic lokshen (sweet cheese and noodle) kugel. Amelia Paradise’s Mexicali kugel, which contained New Mexico Hatch green chilies, artichoke hearts and sharp white cheddar, was declared the winner by a judges’ panel of adults and teens. It also won the people’s choice award.
TV hosts Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert both have their own ice cream flavors (made by Ben & Jerry’s). Jon Stewart does not. The Petaluma-based organic Three Twins Ice Cream would like to rectify that.
On Dec. 10 on Facebook, Three Twins put up a photo of a carton with Stewart’s likeness as its logo, flanked by Hassidic Jews. Calling the flavor “Land of Milk and Honey,” Three Twins is ready to move forward with production, if only the Jewish faux-news show host will go for it.
“This is our way of reaching out to him,” said Three Twins founder Neil Gottlieb. “If he gave us permission, we would happily do it in a second.”
Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. You can find her website atwww.theorganicepicure.com. Please send story ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tasting Menu by Chef Isaac Bernstein with Wine Pairings by Jonathan Hajdu on December 1, 2012
1. Wild sockeye Salmon, Everything Spice, shaved Celery, avocado cream, Four Gates Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2009
2. Grappa-cured Salmon Belly, Sliced Apple, Fennel Frond, touch of wasabi, barrel sample of Covenant Red Sea Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek, Sonoma, 2012
3. Hamachi with meyer lemon puree, fresh shaved horseradish, Covenant Chardonnay Lavan, Russian River Valley, 2010
4. Hamachi cucumbers pickled in gin, Australian finger lime pearls, Covenant Landsman Pinot Noir, Napa Valley, 2011
5. Hamachi, kumquat pickled and not, shiso leaf, pink peppercorn, Makom Grenache Blanc, Lodi County, 2012 (Made by Hajdu wines, not released yet)
6. Albacore Tartare minced with black and green olives and fresh herbs, tomato leather, marinated fennel, Chateaux Leoville Poyferre Bordeaux, Saint Julien, 2005
7. Toro two ways, belly and collar, horseradish, smoked salt, Capcanes (Grenache Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan blend), Spain, 2010
8. Maguro, watermelon, fresh mint, fresno chili, olive oil suspension, smoked (plastic wrap removed tableside), Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2003
9. Maguro, red grapefruit, oranges, baby beets, mizuna, garnished with Armando Manni olive oil (a favorite of Thomas Keller’s and considered by some to be one of the best olive oils in the world), Herzog Chardonnay, Russian River, 2005, from cellar of our host
10. Hirame, sriracha aioli, yuzu, Covenant Red C Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 2006
11. American Ribeye Carpaccio, breaded and fried bone marrow cube, cherry tapenade, pistachios, Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2005
12. Cauliflower three ways: pureed, purple cauliflower couscous with raisin verjus, ras el hanout, seared romanesco, Domaine Du Castel Grand Vine, Israel, 2009
13. Faux Gras (chicken liver parfait) with sherry and duck fat, coffee cardamom soil, huckleberry compote, Besomim Petite Sirah, Grenache, Syrah, Eagle Point Ranch Mendocino, 2010
14. Poached Chicken, cornbread puree, sweet potato fondant, charred spring onion, maple gastrique, Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2010
15. Gnocchi, truffle puree, chanterelles, shiitaki marmalade, with shaved aged salami, Chateau Pontet Canet Pauillac, France 2003
16. Seared Duck Breast, dehydrated strawberry and black olive crumble, reduced balsamic, Makom Zinfandel, Lodi County, 2011, Hajdu Wines (not released)
17. Goose Breast, yam fritter, parsnip puree, maple-poached pears, fried chicken skin, Shirah Wine Co. Power To The People Syrah, Santa Barbara County, 2009
18. Braised Lamb Shoulder in Coconut Milk, ginger carrot puree, glazed carrot, Yatir Forest (Bordeaux Blend), Negev, Israel, 2006
19. Brined Veal Loin, red wine braised cabbage, charred brussels sprouts, celery root puree, Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008
20. Veal Breast braised in hard cider, sous vide apple with buckwheat honey, butterscotch miso crumble, maple-glazed butternut squash, Shirah, Bro.Deax Bordeaux Blend, 2010
Roasted Rib Eye, potato kugel souffle, charred broccoli, Brobdignagian Grenache, Eaglepoint Ranch Mendocino, 2010
22. Slow-Roasted Crescent Cut of Beef, goose fat and sugar-glazed turnips and radishes, sweet soy, Covenant Solomon Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009
23. Challah French Toast with Goose Fat, beef bacon lardons, peanut butter mousse and peanut butter powder, maple syrup, Carmel Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Israel, 2007
24. Parsnip Cake, coffee and cardamom soil, vanilla, carrot Styrofoam, Binyamina Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Israel, 2005