If you're familiar with Jewish food, prepare to be surprised and delighted at this new Cook+Solo Center City eatery. If not, welcome to a bubbi-inspired but soaring introduction to some Ashkenazi classics.
Soon after being seated within the sleek confines of Abe Fisher, my server approached and asked: “Are you familiar with Jewish food?”
If you are, prepare to be surprised and delighted. If not, welcome to a bubbi-inspired but soaring introduction to some Ashkenazi classics.
Much of the buzz about the new Steven Cook-Michael Solomonov restaurant in Center City has centered on the non-kosher foodstuffs featured in three dishes: Shrimp Fried Rice, Corned Pork Belly and, for dessert, Bacon-and-Egg Cream.
But the other 16 small plates and desserts on the opening day menu aren’t blatantly treif. All fall within the traditional canon, some harkening back to lost originals, but most pushing them forward to today's tastes.
First-night diner Barry Freedman remarked that “in some ways, it doesn’t appear like Jewish food. I suspect it’s designed to appeal to a broader audience.”
His wife, Meryl, found it to be “Jewish food jazzed up, and a nice way to introduce someone to Jewish food.”
That jazziness came through in a selection from the fish course: Stuffed Trout Gefilte Fish. Its jazziness was rooted in a traditional touch most makers of homemade gefilte fish forget: stuffing the forcement into the fish’s skin. That’s the way gefilte fish (literally, stuffed fish) historically was made before the invention of cans and jars. The medieval Jewish cook stretched the expensive fish protein with matzah meal or other grain extender, then put the forcemeat back into the skin to resemble whole fish for the Sabbath or holiday table.
This was clearly gefilte fish: It smelled of fish (in the best way), the texture was spot on, the flavor of the trout undiminished by extraneous seasonings. Carrots are one traditional accompaniment to the dish, and Abe Fisher’s featured the sweet root vegetable two ways — a carrot and raisin salad and a carrot crain, with the barest hint of horseradish in the creamy sauce. (The Borscht Tartare I tasted had a stronger, though not overpowering, horseradish flavor.) The stuffing was wrapped around the delicious, charred fish skin (if you like crispy chicken skin, you’ll like trout skin), served upright on the plate resembling a finely-crafted Japanese futomaki wrapped in nori.
The taste, however, was undeniably Jewish. The flavor walked the line between the two major styles of Ashkenazi gefilte fish, avoiding the peppery bite of the Litvak version and the overwhelming sweetness of the Polish rendition. Instead, Abe Fisher presents a more straightforward dish that allows the salmon-like trout to shine.
Most of the other dishes I sampled moved forward, so to speak, rather than harkening back to the lost originals. For the Kasha Varnishkes, instead of bow tie noodles and whole roasted buckwheat groats tossed together, Abe Fisher serves a plate of delicate homemade kreplach with a spare kasha filling, glazed with a pea-studded, truffled butter sauce.
The parsimonious use of kasha is a nod to those who fear the strongly flavored grain (actually, buckwheat groats are botanically fruit). That suited my fellow diner, Barry Freedman, who emphatically stated, “kasha is kasha.”
Freedman proclaimed himself “a salami and eggs guy,” which is why he ordered and devoured the Shrimp Fried Rice, Abe Fisher’s riff on the Chinese-American classic. Whole shrimp crowned a dish awash in egg yolk, with grilled salami replacing the usual bits of pork. Freedman kvelled over the salami.
The Veal Schnitzel Tacos arrived with what looked to be a Mrs. Paul's fried fish stick resting in each of the two soft flour tortillas, purposely resembling the San Diego fish taco. While veal, turkey or chicken schnitzel, adapted from the traditional Germanic pork schnitzel, has become a staple of Jewish cooking, this dish was reminiscent of a lost Jewish food: P’tcha, jellied calves foot. The veal was crafted from both loin and shoulder, with the slow-cooked shoulder adding a trace of the soft gelatin lusciousness that provides the appeal (at least to me) of P’tcha.
The cooked meats are assembled like a terrine, cooled, then sliced into sticks before coated with challah crumbs and fried. The crunch of the veal "fish stick" is matched by the crisp health salad, which replaces the plain cabbage of the original fish taco. Thin radish slices and an anchovy mayonnaise finish the dish.
Given the hot, humid weather of my first-night meal, the Sour Cherry Soup was a more welcome finish than the heavier, knish-shaped Apple Strudel. The “soup” was actually a spice-inflected panna cotta, ladled table-side with cherry-based sauce and adorned with seasonal blackberries and bits of crunchy piped meringue pavlova.
You won't find blue siphon bottles of seltzer on the tables, though the floor mimics a classic deli's black and white linoleum tiles (but with marble). Breaking up the otherwise modern steel-and-wood design of the 50-seat room are hints of bubbi's place with a brocade-covered wall breaking up the otherwise horizontal lines. Even though the restaurant was just a little more than half-full at prime dining time (General manager Eilon Gigi said they have purposely limited reservations during an initial shakedown period), noise levels still approached the now-standard hard-to-hear-across-the-table mark.
The menu structure, with small plates organized into columns of vegetable, fish and meat dishes, lends itself to the $39 prix fixe (including dessert), though you could certainly pick-and-choose a la carte. I wouldn't hesitate to go back again at that price, but next time I'll bring companions to indulge in the three-course (plus dessert) Hungarian Duck menu for two, or the $160 Montreal-style smoked short ribs with rye bread and garnishes for four.
If you're looking for old standbys served your bubbi's way, this is not the place. But if you want to enjoy a creative culinary team's update on some classics, turning them into new but recognizably Jewish dishes — and aren't averse to the presence of treif on the menu, even if you won't order it — make a date with Abe.
Abe Fisher, 1623 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Reservations at Open Table or by phone, 215-876-0088.
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