Merion, Pa. — My grandmother of blessed memory would be surprised if she knew what they’re doing with the schmaltz here at Citron and Rose, a stylish, new glatt kosher restaurant next door to the Philadelphia Community Kollel in this upscale Philly suburb.
They mix it with fried garlic and onions as a substitute for butter with the warm dinner rolls.
This is where kosher cuisine meets a sometimes-surprising re-interpretation, thanks to some very creative individuals.
There’s David Magerman, the Philadelphia philanthropist who opened the restaurant because, as he told me, one way to attract more observant Jews to a community is to give them — what else? — a good place to eat.
Magerman moved here from Long Island; he’s newly-observant, a Stanford Ph.D. with a sub-specialty in artificial intelligence, and the founder of the Kohelet Foundation, which supports Jewish day schools.
Magerman still can’t believe he’s in the restaurant business, but he’s got the best consultants ever in Israeli-American Chef Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Mid-Atlantic award-winner, and his partner, restaurateur Stephen Cook.
Solomonov and Cook operate three very popular non-kosher Philly restaurants — Zahav, their amazing Israeli eatery, the Texas-style Percy Street Barbecue, and Federal Donuts for take-out donuts and fried chicken.
And finally, there’s Chef de Cuisine Yehuda Sichel, who studied culinary arts in Israel…
A young hostess greets us warmly at the door, followed by someone who escorts us to our table across from the open kitchen, where Sichel is working and where I spot the mashgiach, the bearded fellow wearing a kipa.
The young wait staff is cool in black outfits and silver-blue ties — a reminder that Citron and Rose is about as far removed from old world as Eskimos from Miami.
Which brings me to something Magerman says: “No one involved with our restaurant has any experience with kosher restaurants. That was one of the key things that I wanted to do was bring in a restaurant team – not a kosher restaurant team.”
“A lot of the experience [in Citron and Rose],” he notes, “doesn’t feel like the typical kosher restaurant.”
Magerman recalls being told that a kosher restaurant wouldn’t do well and decided to “make something that was a restaurant first, and then it just happens to adhere to kosher rules.”
The wait staff is a mix of secular and religious, and I see guests with kippot and without.
Our attentive waitress starts us off with bottled water and then brings a serving of warm, house-baked rolls – challah and rye – with a dish of the tasty schmaltz.
Next, comes a small plate of house pastrami with Dijon mustard and sauerkraut, followed by our First Course: my Salad Lyonnaise and my wife’s Celery Root Soup, in the middle of which sits a serving of veal-stuffed cabbage. The soup is thick, velvety, and flavorful, and the veal-stuffed cabbage comes apart effortlessly.
My Salad Lyonnaise, which substitutes duck breast for the traditional bacon of this classic dish, is served with potatoes cooked in duck fat, tasty morsels of smoked duck, and the customary poached egg and frisee in tangy red wine vinaigrette.
For the Second Course, my wife has the Ribeye Steak with potato kugel, glazed onions, and Concord grape mustard, and I dig into the Lamb Sholet, the Hungarian version of Shabbat cholent — braised lamb shank with kishke, haminado, and flageolet beans.
My lamb was cooked slowly in Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine, along with coffee and all-spice. It’s so tender that it falls off the bone.
My wife’s steak is cooked as ordered to perfection, and the kugel is a reminder again of the “heavy” Eastern European influences in our dinner.
By the time we complete our second course, there isn’t an empty seat in the restaurant, and the bar is full, too.
“Some [observant] people have told me that they’ve never been able to go to a bar as an adult because there were no kosher bars,” says Magerman.
“Now there’s a group of people one or two nights a week…who just go and hang out. They sit at the bar, they might have dinner, they might have an appetizer, and they sit there and talk…”
There are kosher wines from around the world; single malt Scotch; beer; and cocktails like “The Mensch and the Maidel” (brandy, poppy and apple cider).
When it comes time for dessert, we try the French Toast Bread Pudding. Good choice: this dish tastes like candy, and no wonder: it’s made with pecan praline and maple and comes with coffee ice cream.
Citron and Rose is supervised by Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia and also does off-premise catering.
The restaurant, open Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 -- 10 p.m., is located at 370 Montgomery Ave.
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