New Yorkers of a certain age will recall a famous ad campaign with the tagline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” Ditmas Kitchen Boca could very well adopt the slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish — or keep kosher — to enjoy Ditmas Kitchen.”
It is a good restaurant that happens to be kosher, not simply a good kosher restaurant. It features creative takes on vegetable and sushi dishes and the best restaurant steak I have had in a year, a mammoth, $85 seared cote de boeuf with a delectable crust and tender interior cooked perfectly to the ordered medium-rare. A great, juicy steak at a kosher restaurant? Who knew?
Ditmas Kitchen, which opened in January 2017 in a shopping center in an unincorporated area west of Boca Raton, does much to dispel myths about kosher cuisine. Among them is that kosher kitchens are commanded to cook meat to shoe leather. It turns out there is nothing in Jewish dietary law, known as kashrut, banning rare bone-in rib steak. However, there are prohibitions against pork, shellfish and anything from the rear half of the cow, including cuts such as sirloin, porterhouse and filet mignon. Also verboten is mixing meat with dairy items such as milk, butter and cream. These restrictions can be challenging for a chef and off-putting for food lovers of all persuasions, including myself, a Brooklyn-born, nonobservant Jew.
Kashrut’s noes and cannots might explain why the secular Jewish friends who joined me on my recent visit to Ditmas Kitchen were filled with trepidation. When we walked into Ditmas Kitchen without a reservation, we stood awkwardly near the entrance for what seemed like a long time and waited for acknowledgment. An Asian chef behind the new sushi bar waved and said hello. Managing partner Larry Edelstein finally appeared and apologized, explaining that he had been looking for an open table for us — the restaurant has a peculiar, L-shaped dining room that seats 55 — but nothing was yet available.
We looked around the room and saw tables filled with Orthodox families and men wearing yarmulkes (religious skullcaps) and tzitzit (religious tassels attached near the waist). On a cool and drizzly Sunday night, the usually lively patio with 70 seats was not operational, so the inside was more cramped than usual.
Because of the Jewish sabbath, the restaurant is closed on Fridays and only has limited late hours after sundown on Saturdays in winter months. “Thursdays are our Fridays and Sundays are our Saturdays, the busiest night of the week,” Edelstein explained in a followup interview. He estimates that 90 percent of the restaurant’s customers keep kosher.
Once seated, we had a meal that exceeded expectations and service that was friendly, good-humored and accommodating. We ordered a Herzog reserve California petit Syrah ($68) from the interesting wine list (another myth dispelled — there are good kosher wines), and a round of sushi and appetizers. We liked the wine so much we wanted another bottle with our entrees, but the only bottle left had already been opened and depleted by one glass. Edelstein asked if we wanted it at a discount ($50). We agreed, and took it. Unconventional, but we were happy.
Just as vegan cuisine demands workarounds that can be hit or miss, kosher cuisine can be deliciously inventive or woefully off-the-rails. Ditmas Kitchen is more hit than miss, thanks to the contributions of Alex Reznik, a Kiev-born, Brooklyn-raised, Los Angeles-based chef who created the concept, and Joe Reuter, a veteran local chef who has helmed the kitchen since August. Reuter, who has cooked at La Vieille Maison, the original Prezzo, Maxaluna, Blue Moon Fish Co. and Casablanca Cafe, brings classical French training and local sensibilities to the menu, which has been tweaked in recent months. A sushi bar and chef have also been added, a nod to Edelstein’s past running Asia, a kosher Asian restaurant in Boca Raton.
The mix can be a little meshuga (that’s Yiddish for “crazy”), but many items are good. The original Ditmas Kitchen in Los Angeles closed in September 2017 after four years, but Reznik’s lamb “bacon” jam lives on in South Florida atop a very good ground-chuck burger ($21). Lamb breast is smoked for four days, then minced into small bits and reduced with onions, red-wine vinegar and brown sugar. Who needs pork? Reznik’s earthy mushrooms with crunchy cashews ($9) also have endured, a good side dish that will please vegans and carnivores alike.
Reuter has added his own touches, including a new Tijuana hummus ($10) that blends ground chickpeas with avocado, a hummus and guacamole mashup topped with pico de gallo and served with freshly fried white corn chips. It’s creamy without requiring sour cream, and it works. A playful take on vegetarian tacos is called the Fun Guy ($14) because it has mushrooms (get it, fungi?), and the tacos are good, with chunks of Kennebec potatoes, kale and avocado aioli. A vegetable soup special ($10) was also satisfying.
Mystery-meat flatbread ($14) sounded scarier than it tasted, with shredded short rib piled on fried flatbread with a pestolike sauce, baby kale, pickled Fresno peppers and a quail egg. The meat was a little dry. Sushi rolls veered to the heavy and fried side, too, but they were tasty, including a crispy tuna rice roll ($15) that featured minced spicy tuna, and a fried tempura Larry roll ($18) with avocado, imitation crab and spicy mayo and topped with flecks of baked fish. Again, it sounded scarier than it tasted.
Sharing is encouraged, and dishes are brought from the kitchen as soon as they are ready. That means some items show up with lightning speed, while others arrive minutes later. A bow-tie chicken pasta dish ($24) was bland and uninteresting, but a pan-seared salmon ($25) atop a sweet potato puree was well executed and delicious. We were warned that the family-size, 32-ounce cote de boeuf would take 30 to 45 minutes, but it was worth the wait and the expense.
Kosher meat must be slaughtered and butchered a certain way under rabbinical supervision, and that makes it expensive. In this case, a bone-in rib steak from A.D. Rosenblatt of Dallas was seasoned with kosher salt and pepper, seared on a flattop grill and then allowed to rest for 15 minutes before being served. It was great by itself, but it’s a shame the three complimentary sauces listed on the menu — green peppercorn, secret mustard and apricot steak sauce — were not offered or brought. “We serve those on request,” Edelstein says.
Reznik has been on TV a bit, appearing on “Top Chef” on Bravo and “Beat Bobby Flay” on Food Network (he beat Flay in a matzo ball soup challenge last year), but his initial menu proved too froufrou for the Boca audience. Reuter seems more in tune with the local audience, even though he is a German-Irish gentile.
Reuter got into the kosher-cuisine world earlier this decade working for Edelstein’s catering company, and he enjoys the challenge of making veloute with coconut milk and desserts such as creme brulee and bread pudding without milk, cream or butter. The coconut creme brulee ($9), made with nondairy whipped topping, was a runny mess with disappointing texture and good flavor, and the dense bread pudding reminded me of a kugel. Such are the concessions of the kosher kitchen.
Ditmas Kitchen Boca
21077 Powerline Road, unincorporated Boca Raton
561-826-8875 or DitmasBoca.com
Cuisine: Kosher American with sushi bar
Cost: Expensive. Appetizers, soups and salads cost $6 to $16, sushi rolls $8 to $20, entrees $21 to $85, sides $6 to $9, desserts $9
Hours: Lunch Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. Dinner Saturday 7:45-11 p.m (only in winter when sun sets early). Closed Fridays, but takeout Shabbat dinner in a bag ($95, feeds four) available for pickup Friday afternoon, must be ordered by Wednesday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Craft beers and interesting selection of kosher wines from California, Europe and Israel
Noise level: Conversational
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Outdoor smoking: No
Parking: Free lot