San Francisco is widely considered one of the best dining destinations in the country, if not the world. That is, unless you keep kosher.
If you observe the Jewish dietary laws-- meaning the meat must be slaughtered according to Jewish law, and dairy and meat cannot be served in the same dish, and pork and shellfish are forbidden-- it’s another story. Many Jewish tourists – and new Bay Area residents alike-- are flummoxed to learn that there are only four actual kosher restaurants in the entire Bay Area, three of them Israeli-style meat, and one of them Chinese vegan, and even this is up for debate.
“We inherited a deli that was created by an expat New Yorker community,” said Peter Levitt, executive chef and co-owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, which despite its long history-- it became Saul’s in 1986, but was a Jewish deli since the 1950s-- serves house-made pastrami from local, sustainably-raised meat and smoked fish shipped in from Brooklyn. “What they wanted was what they left behind in New York and its suburban environs. Most were nostalgic for the food, but not the kosher life that they or their ancestors had already walked away from.”
For many years, in San Francisco, Sabra Grill, a kosher meat restaurant, has been the only game in town. Shangri-La Vegetarian restaurant in the Outer Sunset is often listed in kosher directories, but despite its kosher seal of approval, many observant Jews won’t eat there. In 2010, Amba opened in the Montclair section of Oakland. At first a vegetarian, dairy eatery, but a few months ago, it transitioned to a meat restaurant. And almost two years ago, the Jerusalem Grill & Bar opened in Campbell.
“It’s easy for me to complain because I don’t run a restaurant, and I’m very happy they’re there, but there’s very little choice,” said David Carasso, an Orthodox Jew who lives in San Rafael. “If I want French food, I have to make it. If I want Indian food, I have to make it.”
He also noted that for most families, eating in a kosher restaurant is prohibitively expensive. Kosher observance has its different levels, though, and some Jews who identify with the Conservative movement, say, will keep a kosher kitchen at home, and are willing to eat in non-kosher restaurants, but only a vegetarian or fish dish.
Carasso does not fall into that category, however, he either patronizes kosher restaurants, or does not go out at all. “Yes, it’s frustrating,” he said. “There have been times that a friend and I have driven to L.A. just to go to five or six restaurants; we’ll eat a hamburger at one, ribs at another, onion rings at another, and then drive back up in the same day.”
Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton, chief executive officer of the Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, which supervises the three kosher meat restaurants, estimates that only six percent of the Bay Area’s Jews are observant. “And there are no real Jewish neighborhoods anymore,” he said. “The Jewish community is so spread out.”
He continued, “The Israeli food is good, but people want more than that.”
In the past few years, a few entrepreneurial types have stepped in to expand the existing options. Not with brick-and-mortar establishments, but with delivery service and small-scale catering and pop-up dinners, looking to appeal to those kosher diners who are looking for something beyond the usual falafel and shwarma.
At the “Haimish (Yiddish for friendly, or homey) Wandering Kitchen” which took place at San Francisco’s School of Digital Filmmaking recently, about 30 diners were treated to a 10-course tasting menu (disclosure: I was a guest) by Oakland-based Chef Isaac Bernstein of Epic Bites Catering, with kosher wine pairings poured by Jonathan Hadju, associate winemaker for the kosher winery Covenant – begun in Napa, now in Berkeley – and who makes some of his own label wines as well.
Highlights included a tuna loin dusted with pistachio and mint pesto and what Bernstein called “California Kosho,” which he described as citrus zest fermented with chiles; lamb belly cooked for 24 hours, pressed and cured, with a fig and fennel compote, champagne grapes and a black garlic tahini; and duck breast with a balsamic reduction, blueberry compote, pluot slice and sweet yam fritters.
Bernstein spares no expense; he ships his pasture-raised, sustainably-raised kosher meat from Grow & Behold in New York, and gets most of his produce from local, organic farms. He uses duck fat liberally, instead of butter, which is forbidden in a meat meal, and bottles his own vinegars.
Bernstein grew up in the religious enclave of Monsey, New York, and left his observant upbringing for a time to attend the French Culinary Institute, specializing in bread-baking. On an apprenticeship at the San Francisco Baking Institute, he fell in love with the Bay Area. Now living in Oakland, he makes his living catering weddings and bar mitzvahs – many of his clients are not kosher themselves, but have enough kosher guests at their event to warrant kosher food – but he also offers take-out Sabbath meals and does the occasional pop-up, from which he barely earns anything; he does it mostly because he and his staff thrive on the experimental nature of these dinners. At the outset, he admitted he had 60 different components in the kitchen, and would decide in the moment which to pair with each other.
“These dinners also raise a lot of awareness for my business, as well as kosher food in general, because kosher food has a huge negative stigma here more than anywhere else I’ve ever been,” he said.
Bernstein hopes to eventually open a kosher restaurant in the East Bay, but would only do so with buy-in from the community. “Kosher catering is the only way to make a good living,” he said. “I will never open a restaurant that’s not funded by the community. They have to understand that especially outside of the tri-state area – meaning New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – opening a kosher restaurant is philanthropy.”
For the Haimish Wandering Kitchen, Bernstein teamed up with Chabad of S.F. Rabbi Yosef Langer, who had a different goal, to build community, though he too talked about wanting to change the image of what kosher food can be.
“We need to school the Jewish community that kosher food isn’t only gefilte fish in a jar,” said Langer. “Every Jewish community should have a pizzeria and a meat restaurant with the finest quality and presentation.”
Indeed, one diner by the name of Leon Leib Kushner, was so pleased with the evening, that he stood up spontaneously to make a toast, saying eating kosher food of this level felt like a holiday. “My wish is that it won’t be a struggle for my grandchildren to keep kosher in San Francisco,” he said.
Another newcomer to the scene is L’Chaim Sushi, run by an Orthodox rabbi, Alex Shandrovsky. Begun at the start of last year, Shandrovsky came up with the idea because as a Russian émigré, he grew up in San Francisco on sushi and loved it, but could no longer eat it once he became observant in his 20s. While he started in a synagogue kitchen, his business is now housed in South San Francisco, at his supplier, Royal Hawaiian Seafood.
Shandrovsky calls himself the only kosher sustainable sushi business – he is advised by San Francisco’s sustainable sushi restaurant Tataki’s sustainability guru Casson Trenor-- and says he serves the highest quality fish, just those with fins and scales, as kosher law dictates, and of course no shellfish (though California rolls with fake crab are allowed, since the fake crab is made from seasoned pollock).
His is mostly a delivery operation; he delivers to corporate clients in the city and numerous tech companies in the South Bay, with a $120 minimum. He also does on-site parties, events and workshops, where he uses sushi as a vehicle for Jewish education. Orders of any size can be picked up. He is also now working with sites like GrubHub, which delivers smaller orders than he will.
He has one full-time sushi chef working for him with two others on call for events, and now is reaching into the special diet market. “Many people have special diets, and sushi is a great cuisine for those people,” he said.
And come September, there will be a seating area in their facility, which is five minutes from San Francisco International Airport, making it especially convenient for tourists who may need kosher food for the plane.
The fact that the newcomers are doing so well can be attributed to not being tied down to a restaurant, and the fact that they are offering something other than Israeli food.
Sabra Grill, which has been operating in S.F.’s Chinatown since 1997, is owned by Israeli transplant Eitan Hilleli. For years, Sabra didn’t have the best reputation, as Hilleli took a break from running the restaurant, handing over operations to his nephew. But he recently returned. “I clean it, I fix it, I put my heart here,” he said. Locals say the food has gotten better, too. Given his location, many of his clients are tourists in high season, he says, and Friday afternoons, kosher customers can be seen trekking to Chinatown to bring his kosher food back to their hotels for a Sabbath dinner.
The menu consists of Israeli favorites like chicken, lamb or beef skewers, falafel, and numerous Middle Eastern salads.
Given that his meat and pitas come from Los Angeles, and he has to pay the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and like most kosher establishments, is closed half a day Friday and all of Saturday for the Sabbath, he says, not to mention almost a month’s worth of Jewish holidays, margins are slim. “It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not to make money, but it’s to serve the community, it’s a mitzvah (good deed.)”
That was a theme seconded by Amba’s owner Jonathan Wornick, who opened his restaurant not for an income source, but for community-building. Interestingly, Wornick and his family are strict vegetarians, and when they opened Amba, it was vegetarian as well, selling mostly falafel and sabich (fried eggplant and hard-boiled egg) sandwiches. But over time, those who patronized it said they would prefer a meat restaurant.
“For those who keep kosher but will eat out, they already felt they could eat vegetarian at most restaurants,” said Wornick. “But there was nowhere in the East Bay where they could eat kosher meat, out. Despite my own issues around it, it made sense, since people are going to eat meat anyhow.”
Wornick said he enjoys seeing various people from all sectors of the Jewish community at Amba, “that’s what makes me most proud.” Staff from various Jewish organizations have meetings there, and it’s the kind of place where patrons can count on running into people they know.
In addition to falafel and sabich, Amba serves Israeli favorites like chicken schnitzel and shwarma, and numerous salads.
Jerusalem Grill is the newest addition. Located in Campbell, it was started by Israeli transplant Erez Knobler, who also helps manage an aromatherapy product business. While he couldn’t be reached by Bay Area Bites, word on the street is the Israeli menu is huge, and also features a number of different meat skewers, falafel and various salads. Knowing that kosher Jews have so few options, the restaurant does themed nights as well, such as Chinese or Mexican.
While Shangri-La Vegetarian Restaurant in the Outer Sunset has kosher certification from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco, most observant Jews only look to the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California (which certifies both Epic Bites and L’Chaim Sushi as well) for where it's okay for them to eat. Therefore, those I spoke to, won't patronize it, but those less strict do.