As life was ending in the Catskills, my life was just beginning. I was only a kid when my parents drove my brother and me upstate to experience the splendor (or former splendor) of the great bastions of Jewish entertainment. We stayed in hotels like The Concord and Kutsher’s where the carpeting was well-worn and the smell was a pungent mixture of mothballs and boiled eggs. I remember a lunch in a sunny dining room with faded pink tablecloths and a plate of refrigerated gefilte fish plopped down in front of us, my dad teaching me how to cover it extravagantly with spicy horseradish to mask its nothingness. We saw Frankie Valli perform. We saw The Turtles. An artist named Morris Katz painted landscapes in the lobby. These memories circled around a vague mist in my head as I joined my parents for dinner this past Monday night to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) at Manhattan’s resurrection of this time and place: Kutsher’s Tribeca.
It was a good night to be a Kutsher’s in terms of atmosphere. There was a boisterousness in the air, a sense of holiday, as men in suits and women in dresses seemed to arrive from temple. (We’d arrived from the Matthew Broderick musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It” which I really enjoyed, despite the mediocre reviews. Sarah Jessica Parker was in the balcony showing her kids their daddy on stage.) The room had a retro decor which was fitting considering the era it’s supposed to honor.
We weren’t crazy about our table, which was near the bathroom, two seats facing outward (good) and one seat facing the wall (not so good). I took the wall seat but halfway through the meal my dad made me switch so I could see some of the action.
I was intrigued by the cocktail list which included “Bug Juice” a drink, my dad explained, that harkens back to Jewish summer camp and the bright red fruit punch they’d serve there. I ordered myself a glass–”it has passion fruit,” said the waiter–and was totally prepared to enjoy it, only it was slightly too sweet.
The sweetness came from a vanilla component that reminded me of cream soda. It was so sweet, in fact, that I could only drink half of the drink until I gave up and ordered a glass of wine.
No matter. There were latkes!
This was the first course on the Rosh Hashanah tasting menu. They came with sour cream and apple sauce and were really excellent: crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.
The challah bread with honey butter didn’t disappoint…
And neither did this matzoh ball soup, short on the soup.
My mom commented, quite accurately, that the soup was so well seasoned it didn’t need a drop more salt. “Normally I always sprinkle more salt into my soup,” she said, “but this was perfect.” My dad disagreed because he’d sprinkled salt into his but maybe he secretly regretted that.
My dad, who really loves gefilte fish (strange, I know!), ordered the fancy Kutsher’s version which gets high marks for the most artful presentation of gefilte fish in the history of serving gefilte fish.
(The fish is on the right, the horseradish and beet mixture on the left.)
I had the apple salad with nuts and dates and blue cheese, a hat-tip to the Jewish New Year (where you normally dip apples in honey)…
…which, I’m sad to say, was (to use a quote from my mother and grandmother) “nothing with nothing.” This may be the only case in history where gefilte fish would’ve been the better choice.
My brisket entree was really well-made:
And my mom couldn’t stop raving about her Romanian skirt steak which reminded her of a similar dish she ate at her beloved East Bay Diner, where we would go when I was growing up in Oceanside, Long Island.
At this point, though, the waiter was in the weeds—there were lots of hungry Jewish families surrounding us and lots of scrambling waiters—and the meal felt kind of endless, like hours were passing instead of minutes between courses.
Luckily, we only had one course left–dessert–and this needed work. A shoulder-shrug inducing lemon cheesecake with ugly burnt fruit:
A barely serviceable flourless chocolate cake:
Maybe, in its way, this meal was meant to mimic the decline of the Catskills by starting on such a high note (those latkes! that soup!) and ending with such a thud (we left most of those desserts uneaten).
Still, I enjoyed the experience of eating everyday Jewish food in a fancy restaurant setting. I’d never done that before and can understand why the place has appeal. I’d like to go back on a non-holiday night to see how the normal menu works. Apparently, there’s a rainbow cookie sundae and, as you all know, I love rainbow cookies.
In the meantime, I’ll load up the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack and remind myself that, though I was barely conscious, I spent a little time in the Catskills at the end of an era.
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