Passover at a Beachwood Restaurant Goes Gourmet While Keeping the Meaning
On Friday night, the first night of Passover, Jews will sit down with family and friends for a ceremonial dinner. Preparing the ritual meal requires a lot of work, but a restaurant in Beachwood offers an alternative that’s kosher-style as well as gourmet.
WKSU’s Vivian Goodman has the story in today’s Quick Bite.
The ritual of the Passover Seder includes the re-telling of the story of the Exodus, with prayers, songs, at least four glasses of wine and many traditional dishes.
“Gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, tsimmes potato kugel, and where are you at a Seder dinner without brisket and roasted chicken?”
Instead of cooking it themselves, many prefer to let Jonathan Bennett do it. He's the chef and one of the partners at Moxie in Beachwood, which has the second-highest Jewish population per capita outside Israel. It used to get quiet at Moxie around the Jewish holidays.
“Passover was one of the slowest evenings of the year.”
Busy now for the holiday
But that changed nine years ago when Bennett started serving Seder meals.
“It has been a wonderful success ever since. On a normal Passover we’ll do 300 covers. It’s a busy, busy, evening.”
They set tables for two and tables for 40. Some families book a year or two in advance, and the chef says every year patrons offer suggestions which he welcomes.
“I grew up southern Baptist,” says Bennett. “And the only Jew that I knew was Jesus. So luckily we live in a great community of wonderful, wonderful Jewish people who have shared a tremendous amount of knowledge and recipes with us, and opinions have been free-flowing.”
The Seder at Moxie isn’t strictly kosher. Bennett calls it “kosher-style.”
“We stick to the kosher traditions, but there’s no rabbi in the back.”
But there is one a few blocks north on Richmond Road, Richard Block, the senior rabbi at Temple Tifereth Israel.
Food, he says, is an intrinsic part of most Jewish holidays. “And it’s certainly true of Passover.”
And as for having the Seder meal at a restaurant, the rabbi gives it his blessing. “I’m happy when anyone observes Passover in whatever way they can and what’s meaningful for them.”
At the center of every table tonight, Chef Bennett will place a decorative plate of symbolic foods.
“We start out with the Seder plate. Each family kind of treats the Seder plate differently. Some go through their traditions as a family. Some eat the egg and the charoset.”
Rabbi Block says these foods fulfill a commandment to identify with forefathers who were slaves in Egypt.
“The charoset -- the apple and nut mixture which is said to represent the mortar that the slaves were forced to make as they were building storehouse cities for Pharoah; and matzo, the so-called bread of affliction, which our ancestors made in a hurry, in haste as they left Egypt in the Exodus; the saltwater, emblematic of the bitter tears of the experience of slavery.”
After almost a decade of Seders at his restaurant, Chef Bennett appreciates the significance.
“I love the culture aspect of it. I just love the fact that the cuisine has meaning.”
Doing the cooking
Plus, he likes giving home cooks a break for the holiday.
“Spending 12, 15, 20 hours preparing dinner, that’s a very daunting task for a lot of people. So, to be able to stay with the tradition, to be able to enjoy the Passover dinner as opposed to running back and forth into the kitchen, there’s a lot to be said for that.”
To demonstrate one of the dishes he’ll prepare for the Seder, roast chicken, the chef needs his trusty black steel skillet.
“I just got a little bit of canola oil in. Lay that in there nice and hot. And we’re going to put that skin side down, and we’re going to let that skin render out a little slowly. And after the skin’s nice and crispy we’ll flip
it over and we’ll put it in the oven to finish it.”
On the touchy topic of matzo ball soup, the chef tries to compromise. Some want their matzo balls heavy and dense, others prefer them light and fluffy.
“No one makes matzo ball soup like your bubbe made matzoh ball soup, right? So I try to make sure that mine are not floaters or sinkers.”
Traditional yet gourmet
Dessert for the Seder is Bennett’s twist on a traditional Passover treat, the coconut macaroon.
“We actually came up with a coconut-macaroon chocolate tart. That is just, that’s one of my favorites. We use a coconut-macaroon base as a crust and we bake that. So, it’s kind of the best of both worlds. Sort of Passover with a gourmet twist -- just a little bit, just enough to remember you’re at Moxie.”
Without forgetting, Rabbi Block hopes, the whole point of the Passover meal.
“An experience of family and community and a sense of connection.”