Please note: Judah S. Harris is a freelance photographer and journalist. The Orthodox Union makes no endorsements or representations regarding kashrut certification of various products/vendors referred to in his articles, blog, or web site.
Sometimes it’s better to eat alone, but the evening of Tuesday, February 22, wasn’t one of those times. That night was a good time to pull away from the kitchen table and head over to The Kosher Food and Wine Experience 2011, which was in full swing for a few hours at Pier 60, the popular special events venue at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers.
If you weren’t one of the 2000 who attended the completely sold out event (there were many begging for last-minute tickets), imagine a large room offering a concentrated bouquet of new tastes, along with traditional Jewish fare served up in novel (and sometimes wild) configurations. Imagine an almost over-abundance of wines – 300 of them – from the U.S., Israel, France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, and (heading as far south as reasonably possible) Australia and New Zealand. The well-publicized and well-attended event offered testimony that the kosher wine market continues to grow, and there were other alcoholic drinks too, but with tastings reserved for press and trade only. The credentialed had an extra couple of hours to explore KFWE before the public arrived and the room got crowded. (Membership has its privileges, but with it comes the responsibility of writing a 2800 word article.)
This is the fifth year that Royal Wine Corporation has hosted the gala event. Initially a showcase exclusively for beverages, last year they added food to the menu and moved to Chelsea Piers, and this year invited a number of celebrated chefs from the world of kosher cooking to be present, though a good guess suggests that many tasters in the crowd could probably maneuver deftly around any kitchen. But you wouldn’t be able to easily identify the most talented amongst the masses, and the crowd, a well dressed one, had left any aprons and culinary tools at home, and were now managing to balance plates, forks and glasses as they made their way from table to table, food on one side of the hall, wines concentrated on the other.
If the Kosher Food and Wine Experience name itself wasn’t a clear enough indication, you have to know it’s a Jewish event when there’s cholent being served. For the $100 admission ticket to KFWE, you got to taste three types, courtesy of Got Cholent, Inc. Founded by Ari White, a Yeshiva University grad who spent five years in corporate, his company offers 16 varieties of cholent on their catering menu. I tried some of each that they’d brought from their Westchester hub to share at KFWE: Texas Cholent (they smoke their own meat and then add Dr. Pepper), Moroccan Dafina, and Bubby’s Polish Cholent, which resembles what most of us are used to, unless you’re from Texas or of Sephardic background.
If cholent is a meal in itself (though I had only a few small portions), it was now time for dessert. I headed a couple exhibit tables away to My Most Favorite Food, the now Upper West Side establishment that had to leave their dairy recipes at home given the meat-or-pareve event regulations, but nevertheless had an attractive array of neatly arranged colorful desserts on display. I prefer to involve more pronounced coloring in my clothing and furniture choices (and photographs too), rather than atop my cakes and cookies, so I grabbed a brownie bite from the tray, then moved on to the white cone shaped meringue sweets. I had two of them, eyed but didn’t try the cinnamon sticks in a jar, and slid only a matter of feet to the famed tea manufacturer from Israel (though founded in Russia in 1849), Wissotzky. You’ve seen their name on delicate wooden boxes, and now there were choices to be made: “Do you want something fruity or would you like to try something new?” asked Natale Goldberg from her side of the table. I went with new, and a moment later was sipping… chocolate tea.
Surveying the other nearby options, I walked over to say hi to the folks at Noi Due, an Upper West Side Italian-themed dairy café on 69th St, which was serving up tastes of coffee (they grind their own), and biscotti, (not their own). I didn’t accept the offer for coffee, explaining matter-of-factly that I’ve never drunk a cup in my life. Not one. Ever. I’m not sure if I’m justified in my longstanding pride of that fact, but most people find it rather novel. If you can’t get to Noi Due today or tomorrow, at least visit their website and enjoy the background music (www.noiduecafe.com). Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a gondola, and pretend yourself lost in Venice. The restaurant name, if you’re wondering, as I was, means something along the lines of “the two of us.”
The wineries (which I promise we’ll get to) had the longest trips to the event, but Robert and Valerie Gropper, a husband and wife team whose lives, to a great degree, revolve around salsa, and have since 1993, drove down from Poughkeepsie, a couple hours to Manhattan. Their company, My Brother Bobby’s Salsa, was offering tastes of a number or varieties, including their bruschetta, and in front of the serving bowls were displayed the ingredients, such as green and red peppers, onions, jalapeno, and tomatoes. I asked Valerie about the difference between chutney and salsa – “Chutney is cooked, this is fresh” – and how much they produce in their commissary. Summer is big time for them, barbecue and picnic season, so they make about 2000 pounds of the original red salsa recipe for the meat eating crowds, but I’m sure tofu fans can find ample use too.
Jackie Grossman, a New York City tax lawyer, approached the Gropper’s table and while she was enjoying some samples, I asked her what prompted her to attend KFWE? “My husband fancies himself a wine connoisseur, and I accompany him,” she told me. I’m sure that’s true, but he wasn’t in site, and obviously on the other side of the room, while Jackie remained – at least for now – enjoying the options in the restaurant and catering section. The Gropper table was a good stop, since she likes to make salads, likes Mexican foods, and likes avocadoes, which I think is the only way to go, though some elementary school kids I’ve met might not agree.
The table to the left of My Brother Bobby’s was a place to find the flavors of India, and there I met Pearl and Avi Weisel learning more about Dakshin, a glatt kosher Indian bistro on the East Side of Manhattan. New York has had various emanations of kosher Indian food for many years, but Dakshin and Shalom Bombay, located about 20 blocks south, are two relatively new establishments offering meat fare, as opposed to vegetarian, and with the enhancement of more mainstream kosher supervision (head to Stamford, CT and you can find a dairy option supervised by the local Vaad).
Sanjay Bhatnagar, the proprieter of Dakshin, was standing behind the table serving Lasoni Mushrooms with Mint Sauce. Pearl is a mushroom fan and enjoys the dish; her husband Avi tries just the mint sauce. They both got their tickets to KFWE a month before the event. Sanjay’s college-aged son told me a bit about his dad’s experience, as he placed some Shami Kebab, a combination of lamb, cilantro, ginger, and garlic, on a plate for me to taste. This is his father’s first kosher eatery, but he’s been in the food industry for 27 years, initially in India and then here in the US.
Mushroom themed dishes were also available one table away, where Jeff Nathan from Abigael’s was serving Wild Mushroom Polenta, his recipe of wild mushrooms, herbs and white truffle oil enhancing a corn meal base. Small plastic cups of pasta with miso sauce were another giveaway, and if you’re searching for other interesting combinations of his, pick up a copy of his book, Adventures in Jewish Cooking.
Exhibitor staff at many food tables could be seen working hard, though not feverishly, to feed the crowds, and I observed for a few moments the servers at Prime KO (a Japanese steak house, and part of the Prime Hospitality Group, which also includes The Prime Grill and Solo), moving in automated fashion, scooping spicy tuna onto crispy rice. Shunning raw fish, I just watched, and left it at that. But Elyce and Steve Smedresman from Fairlawn, NJ, didn’t. “We’ve had three,” they admitted proudly. Their first time at KFWE, they told me they’d found places exhibiting that they wanted to now visit on their own turf, revealing that Shalom Bombay was one of them.
Slender but tall cocktail tables were set up around the room, and at one of them, Leah Goldsmith from Queens, who’d come “with a writer friend,” was eating lamb and potato kugel from Pomegranate, the gourmet Brooklyn supermarket that has generated some excitement, not just for their shopping experience (and a parking lot – most essential!), but also for their persistent and forceful advertising campaigns that have appeared in local Jewish media since, and prior to, their inception.
Chezkie Klein, who’s known by friends (and I got the sense, by just about everybody) as CK, gave me a quick tour of the booth, by far the largest occupier of floor space at KFWE. He’s manager of prepared foods and has only been at Pomegranate for a few months. Prior to that, for 10 years, he owned and managed the Plaza Dining restaurant at The Avenue Plaza Hotel in Boro Park.
CK is good at describing food (“the Honey Mustard Corn Beef melts in your mouth”), resourceful (he wants me to meet the other folks from the store, including the Marketing Director), and can offer valuable advice – the kind that even if you know it you might still need professional assurances about (“horseradish goes with many dishes and recipes”). A long table of theirs was devoted to dips. I gave the server my choices and she placed a selection of purple eggplant dip, tehina, and kalamat olive tapenade on crackers (I mistakenly took some of the saltier ones, which overwhelmed the dips).
As I headed finally to the wine section of the event, I met up with a friend and asked her what wines she had tried. “The women are all crazy about Capcanes,” she said, showing me the program guide. A Spanish winery from the Montsant region, an area that is home to 50 wineries, and vineyards occupying about 5000 acres of land (which produce 22 million pounds of grapes a year), Capcanes was pouring three wines that evening and she had tasted and liked the new Flor del Flor 2007 ($80 in stores), which she described as “sweet, but not too heavy.” A not-exclusively-kosher winery, Capcanes’ kosher yearly allotment of 16,000 bottles is less than 5 percent of their total production. This winery – like many wineries – has a story. It was back in 1995 that the Barcelona Jewish community approached Capcanes to create kosher wines, forcing a modernization of the winery’s equipment, which helped them evolve throughout their product line away from their bulk wine business model.
Hagafen Cellers of Napa Valley, CA had brought eight wines to KFWE. I remember them from the earlier years. The company was founded in 1979 and I used to receive their occasional newsletters in the ‘80s, replete with product information, purchase-by-the-case offers… but my eyes mostly caught the recipes, and Napa Valley, as I discovered, offered landscapes that are a photographer’s dream. I even had called Hagefen’s Winemaker, Ernie Weir, way back then, to see if they wanted a photo shoot, though I never made it out to the region.
Now, a couple decades later at the Hagafen table, I tasted their Hagafen Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, which retails for $45, with chocolate, black fruits flavors… but then tried one of the others, a Zinfandel (2006), also dry but with a lighter taste compared to the Cabernet, and which I preferred. Hagafen has won critical acclaim and can even be found as an import on store shelves in Israel, which probably says something, since Israel doesn’t lack wine options.
Kibbutz Tzuba, 20 minutes from Jerusalem, 40 minutes from Tel Aviv, has a winery that bears its name, and many ancient temple-period wine presses that can be seen on its grounds. At their table, Eiton Green, the manager of the winery, as well as kibbutz secretary, explained to me that, in contrast to most other Israeli wineries, they cultivate and grow their own grapes – 15 different varieties. “Twenty percent we keep,” and the rest are sold to other Israeli wineries, he said. Tzuba’s winery is in existence six years and presently produces 12 different types of wine, including Metsuda Reserve 2006, which was proudly on display, and which is made with predominately Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and aged for 24 months in French Oak wine barrels. The winemaker at Tzuba is a South African oleh, Paul Dubb, who helped establish the kibbutz vineyards in the mid-90s, but whose “passion for wine” started when he was child and made kiddush wine in South Africa together with his dad.
At 9:30pm, as the blinking room lights indicated that the event was in fact ending, I grabbed a few minutes with Jeff Morgan from Covenant Wines. Jeff has written amply about wine and food (including hundreds of articles for the glossy magazine Wine Spectator, sister publication to Cigar Aficionado) and taught in educational environments. This kosher California winery has been around for eight years, and was prompted or provoked by a Jewish, though non-observant colleague of Jeff’s, Leslie Rudd, a highly respected wine maker, business leader and philanthropist, and now backer of the Covenant brand, who challenged him to make a “kosher wine that was good.”
Jeff thought he could do it. He knew he needed good grapes and Sabbath observing employees. He called Nathan Herzog – “I need your crew,” he told the Royal Wine executive. From 2003-2007 they took their grapes down south to the Herzog Winery in Oxnard, a city in Ventura County, CA, and there they made their wine. Since that period of time, Covenant’s winemaking has taken place in Napa Valley, where they grow the grapes. The company has a limited run of only 2000 cases a year, and only brings in extra crew for harvest time. Pictures that show their 2010 harvest, as well as the two previous years, can be viewed at their website (www.covenantwines.com).
If the abundance and variety of kosher wines has enhanced the kosher dining experience, it’s also created a certain amount of confusion or uncertainty about the right approach to choosing wines, and how exactly to meld them with food dishes. Gary Landsman, a wine “commentator” (www.winetastingguy.com) who handles marketing and PR for Royal Wine Corporation and who was instrumental in marketing KFWE 2011, suggests that people make it more complicated than it really is.
Choose a wine you like, he advises in a recent article that appeared in a February issue of Kosher Inspired, a new Mishpacha Magazine publication. If you like the wine, then it’s a good choice. If it’s hard for you to swallow, then it’s not. As for pairing, “drink what you’d like,” but pay attention to similar flavors – wines with citrus flavors as a complement to salads or main dishes with citrus tastes, or creamy toasted-bread flavored wines (such as Chardonnay) with foods like pasta that embody some of the same. Heavier or big-bodied wines (powerful aroma and flavor) work well with heavier food items (e.g., a steak), but can overpower a grilled salmon, which would do best with lighter wines such as a Pinot Noir, which is also recommended for dishes where mushrooms provide the dominant flavor.
Whatever happened to Kedem Plum Royale, my favorite as a child? (We always included that in our Pesach wine order.) It’s still available at about $4 to $5 a bottle, but Gary won’t allow me free reign. Sweet wines, he advises, are great for dessert time. But exert caution when serving outside those parameters. “These wines can make non-sweet foods taste bitter.”
I guess it’s to be expected that The Kosher Food and Wine Experience 2011, even as it provided a showcase for new foods and new wines, could easily remind some of the quite familiar. I overheard one person, at one point in the evening, call it a “big kiddush.” I’m certain he was not the lone attendee to use that reference during or after the event. The similarities were obvious: crowds of people (sans the pushing), hot cholent, wine, cookies and cake, yet (given the alcoholic component of the event) no kiddie table.
But really KFWE provided multiple opportunities: wine connoisseurs could drink together and speak to each other in the language of wine terminology, while the less initiated could taste food and drink and learn a few things that they might now more easily incorporate into their dining experience. If one evening wasn’t enough time to master all, there’ll be another KFWE again next year (and some of the special names in the wine and food industry that exhibited at this year’s event to look forward to in the interim).
To read more about local, national and international kosher food fairs and events, you may also view OU Kosher’s Blog
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. He photographs family celebrations and a wide range of corporate, organizational and editorial projects in the US, Israel and other countries. Judah’s photography has appeared in museum exhibits, on the Op-Ed Pages of the NY Times, on the covers of more than 40 novels, and in advertising all over the world. His work can be seen in a frequent email newsletter that circulates to thousands of readers who repeatedly praise the quality of Judah’s photography and writing. To learn more about Judah S. Harris, please visit http://www.judahsharris.com/visit.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.