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The list of things I don’t do as a Jew is much, much longer than the list of things I do.
I don’t, for example, keep kosher. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t—I’m a food critic. Eating tripe and shellfish and all manner of pork, and indulging in rich, sumptuous plates that mingle meat and dairy, is part of my job description, besides being among the gastronomic glories I look forward to every time I venture into another restaurant.
I do, however, keep Passover. Which is to say, I observe the laws of kashrut—and the greater restrictions that then apply—during the eight-day period that celebrates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. This may not make sense to you, I suppose, unless you’re another idiosyncratically assimilated Jew, but I assure you I am not alone in this practice.
In accordance with the ancient strictures, for eight days every spring I and others like me abstain from all bread products and all grains, too. Those who have succumbed to the trappings of the Atkins craze won’t see what the big deal is about this, but let me tell you: Keeping Passover is harder than it sounds. No cereal, no pizza, no fried calamari or gumbo or clam chowder, no corn or foods made with corn, no beer. It’s not for nothing that matzo is referred to in the Haggada as the “bread of affliction.”
And while this is all just fine by me as an intermittently committed Jew, as a professional who eats out as many as eight or nine times a week—well, I’ve got problems. Vegetarians and vegans and those who have food allergies are accustomed to tiptoeing around a menu, confining themselves to the one or maybe two items they can order and requesting substitutions wherever possible, but for me, this kind of behavior, besides being just plain annoying, amounts to a dereliction of duty.
So my discovery, last year, of Tragara’s Passover Week menu—a 17-year tradition at the restaurant—was cause for excitement. Here was an opportunity, it seemed, to satisfy my enduring needs as a Jew and my newer, more practical needs as a critic.
Tragara is one of those restaurants I respect and admire more than I enjoy, a mainstay in a Bethesda that has virtually grown up around it in the past two decades. It tends toward a formality that is out of step with the new spirit of dining in the area, and it seems to take a certain pride in lavishing upon you its Old World attentions. An ideal setting, then, for celebrating a holiday that emphasizes continuity and tradition.
Michel Laudier’s cooking was uniformly good and occasionally memorable—a very good gefilte fish, with homemade beet-juice-stained horseradish, as well as a delicate, consommé-like chicken soup supporting a light, well-formed matzo ball. But more than the food itself, it was the novelty of the occasion, the notion of eating out, and eating well, during this week of self-deprivation, that has stayed with me.
Passover is, among other things, about the drawing of distinctions, if only for eight days a year; and when you grow up, for the most part, around non-Jews, you are not inclined to embrace anything that is meant to separate you so conspicuously from everyone else. As a Jew in a public school of very few Jews, I ate my matzo meals quickly, hunched over, so as not to invite my classmates’ attentions. My furtiveness, of course, backfired, and my not-the-norm lunch became the sole focus of conversation in the cafeteria. It never devolved into overt ridicule, but I writhed under the intense scrutiny—“Those the Jewish crackers, right?”—which only accentuated the gulf between me and the rest of the kids.
I was thinking of such moments as I sat at a table at Tragara, all grown up now, with my wife and my parents, eating the Jewish crackers and watching, in quiet astonishment, as diners at every single table around me did the same, drawing the unleavened cakes from the cloth-covered baskets and buttering them blithely, as though eating at a restaurant during the week of Passover were the most natural thing in the world. I found myself moved by this expression of ease, which resonated with me the way the incantation of a prayer might for someone else.
At the end of every seder, Jews the world over make a promise—“Next year in Jerusalem.” And so it was that in 2003, the memory of my meal at Tragara still fresh in my mind, I made myself a different sort of promise: Next year at Felix.
I had wanted to get to the Adams Morgan restaurant and lounge in 2003, but I was booked up with seders, and Felix served its menu on only the first two nights that year. With Tragara, I had sold my parents on spending at least one night of Passover at a restaurant instead of at home, as we were accustomed to doing. I still worried that they might balk at Felix—the chaos of the neighborhood, the trendiness of the restaurant, the possibility of their being the oldest people in the dining room. But Tragara (that’s how we referred to last year, in that single-word, epochal way of all major events; Watergate, Entebbe, Iraq…Tragara) had established a memorable precedent. “We’ll be there,” my mother said.
I invited along a friend and his girlfriend, making for a relatively small seder but a comparatively large party for the narrow, cramped restaurant. Owner Alan Popovsky had gone a step beyond even Tragara with his Passover Week promotion, affording customers the possibility of conducting their own seder ceremony at the table, with a stack of Haggadas at the ready by the host stand. We gave it a try, chanting a few prayers and engaging in small, truncated rituals (yachatz, the washing of hands, was performed with a quick dunking of fingers in a water glass) before the realities of being in a restaurant proved too great an impediment. If it wasn’t deciphering the Hebrew under the dim lighting, it was contending with the sounds of Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra, or breaking off in the middle of a prayer to respond to the servers.
The meal was the focus, ultimately, and that’s no discredit to Popovsky, who provided as close an approximation of a traditional Ashkenazic Jewish meal as you’re likely to come across without an invitation. The menu was small but evocative—matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, chopped chicken liver, potato pancakes, brisket, and roast chicken. I wasn’t enamored of either the soup (too dense a matzo ball, too thin a broth) or the potato pancakes (more leaden than I prefer), and I was disappointed to find that the gefilte fish was jarred, not fresh. But the chopped chicken liver was excellent, with just enough egg and just enough schmaltz to satisfy, texturally and otherwise. And entrees proved superior to the starters, with not a clunker in the bunch. The one New Age nod to lighter appetites, a salmon in a
citrus beurre blanc, was moist and flaky, and the roast chicken managed to summon the spirit of all-day cooking without being dry. Best of all was the brisket, thick-sliced and assertively peppery and braised in a rich red-wine sauce: a classic, tweaked just enough to remind you that a conscientious chef can sometimes improve on the homemade version.
My friend and his girlfriend were disappointed that we didn’t try harder to run a legitimate service, but I kept coming back to the words of the seder song “Dayeinu,” a chant of gratitude expressed to the beneficent God who delivered the Jews from Pharaoh, with its insistent refrain: “It would have been enough.” Yes, it would have been nice to conduct a complete service, but really, I thought, it was enough simply to be there.
The feeling of freedom I experienced at Felix was, if anything, intensified the next night, when I took my parents to the even more trendy Rosa Mexicano, in the Penn Quarter. It appears that the New York import, having only recently arrived in the area, is making a strong bid to be a serious player at Passover in the years to come. It brought in chef Lila Lomeli, a Lithuanian Jew born in Mexico City, to train the kitchen staff in the preparation of the Passover dishes she grew up with. The food was, in a word, revelatory, and I say that not only because I was raised an Ashkenazic Jew, my acquaintance with the Spanish– and North African–derived Sephardic culinary traditions coming largely from books. I say that also because my one other meal at Rosa Mexicano had been just OK, memorable only for the table-side-prepared guacamole that is pushed on every customer.
But from the bowl of wine-soaked, apple-and-jicama haroseth that began our meal to the intensely tropical mango cream parfait that ended it, our dinner was one of slowly unfolding surprises. Beets, a common, cross-cultural ingredient at Passover, appeared in a fine dice with minced habañero as a kind of salsa for the tequila-cured salmon. The matzo-ball soup was laden with spinach, peas, and corn (acceptable in the Sephardic tradition, along with rice and beans); floating like buoys at the surface were three of the tiniest, airiest matzo balls (spiced with a touch of chipotle powder) you’re likely ever to find. Fish, a seder staple, turned up in the form of a striped sea bass, shimmering beneath a rich, maroon-colored guajillo sauce, accompanied by a surprisingly delicate potato kugel. And tsimmes, a casserole of prunes, carrots, and potatoes, was turned into the filling for a chile relleno, which lay alongside a perfectly cooked veal chop, whose grill-derived smokiness was offset by a just-sweet-enough pomegranate sauce.
At Felix, nearly everyone had partaken of the Passover menu; at Rosa Mexicano, we were in a distinct minority. Yet we didn’t feel alienated. The splashy decor, meant to rope in the well-heeled hordes for happy hour, did not seem incongruous with the holiday. In fact, there was something quietly exhilarating to be eating this food, in this luxe setting, in the heart of the new downtown. Across the street, Beyoncé and Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys were taking the stage at the MCI Center, and behind us, through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, we watched the carnival that was the intersection of 7th and F Streets NW: stretch limos, women in jeans and high heels, leather-jacketed men wearing enough jewelry to set up shop on the corner. I felt sated, and happy, and at ease—as far from bondage as any man could be.
Tragara, 4935 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, (301) 951-4935.
Felix, 2406 18th St. NW, (202) 483-3549.
Rosa Mexicano, 575 7th St. NW, (202) 783-5522. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.