Passover is perfect for hitting the road to culinary adventure
You’ve just touched down in Chicago. Or New Orleans. Or New York. You’re in town to visit your aunt, the one with lipstick-stained teeth and the husband no one wants to talk politics with. The saving grace: You have a week to indulge in deep-dish pizza. Or beignets. Or bagels.
But wait. You can’t. It’s Passover.
Here’s a crazy notion. What if the parameters of Pesach — which begins the evening of April 22 and leads many to visit out-of-town relatives — didn’t have to be a deterrent to taking full advantage of an exciting restaurant scene? After all, some live to eat. Some eat to live. Everyone travels to eat.
On those nights when there is no seder, there are still plenty of opportunities to eat out and actually enjoy yourself without having to sit facing blank walls to avoid seeing all the dishes you can’t consume.
Amy Kritzer, the Austin-based creator of the food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and author of the upcoming kosher dessert book “Sweet Noshings,” views Passover as a time to relish creativity in the kitchen. Her blog features recipes for matzah nachos (machos!) and Thai matzah pizza, and she contends that many restaurants use Passover to try new things. For her, that’s something to look forward to.
“Most restaurants are used to accommodating gluten-free people, allergies and such. Passover is just one more challenge they take on, and many of them are ready for it,” Kritzer said. “One year in New York, I remember eating matzah breadsticks at an Italian place. They were incredible.”
In cities with a varied, dynamic restaurant scene — think New York — many top eateries even prepare special menus for the holiday. Think of it as an opportunity to see the chef operating at peak creative levels. Each spring, for example, chef Hillary Sterling at NoHo’s Vic’s whips up a Passover-themed menu inspired by the Seder Hamishi, a secret meal that Jews prepared inside the homes of Christian neighbors during the Spanish Inquisition. It features carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke), bottarga (cured fish roe) and guinea hen.
Of course, not everyone travels to New York for Passover. But no matter where you find yourself, you can always try a good deli — even if traditional sandwiches are out of the question.
“It’s actually one of the busiest times of the year,” said Harold Ginsburg, owner of Art’s Deli in Studio City.
Suzee Markowitz, owner of Factor’s Famous Deli in West L.A., echoed Ginsburg, noting that she sees many unfamiliar faces come Passover time. “We have a lot of families visiting us from out of town around the holiday,” she said.
Both restaurateurs noted that, in addition to enjoying seasonal items such as matzah brei and flourless desserts, people tend to simply order deli favorites such as pastrami or corned beef — minus rye bread.
Now, to purists, that may sound just plain wrong. But Lara Rabinovitch, a specialist in food culture and history who served as consulting producer on “City of Gold,” the award-winning documentary on Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, said there’s reason to keep an open mind. Rabinovitch currently is working on a book about pastrami, which includes delving into a history that doesn’t include its now-familiar companion, rye.
“First of all, pastrami was originally not served on bread,” she said. “It’s from Romania and it was eaten on its own there originally. Bread is a sideshow to the main event, which is pastrami. In most delis, bread is an oversight, anyway. You don’t lose much by losing bread.”
So, think of Passover as the one time of year when you’re forced to eat pastrami the way it was intended.
Orly Olivier’s Sephardic roots inform the way she engages with the holiday, emphasizing family and food above all. The Los Angeles-based artist’s exhibition “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes from the Maghreb,” a celebration of her Tunisian family heritage, just completed its run at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Olivier recommends outings during Passover week that in some ways mirror the spirit of the holiday. For her, that means family-style dining and sampling small plates.
“If I were doing Passover dinner in a restaurant, I’d do Elf in Echo Park. It’s 100 percent vegetarian. They have an amazing approach to food,” she said. “It’s small plates, so you share everything. You’ll never wish you had a piece of bread — or meat, for that matter.”
Olivier also advises calling a restaurant before you go to let the staff know you’re coming in with dietary restrictions. If you let them know you’re coming in for Passover, she said, they’ll probably “pimp it out for you.”
When Tannaz Sassooni is not busy with work as a technical director at Dreamworks Animation, she runs the Persian food blog All Kinds of Yum. Sassooni believes Persian restaurants are another viable option during the holiday, as bread isn’t a major part of the meal. Sassooni said the menu and atmosphere should be major selling points.
“A lot of it is yogurt-based. You can do small plates and everyone is reaching over each other and talking over each other,” she said. “It’s amazing.”