Kosher is ‘hip’ at Philly’s Citron and Rose

Kosher cuisine with a sometimes playful, sometimes surprising re-interpretation.

Citron and Rose 370 (photo credit: George Medovoy)
Citron and Rose 370
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
MERION, Pennsylvania – My grandmother of blessed memory wouldn’t know a thing about Bob Dylan. But they’re playing a recording of one of his songs as we sit down to dinner at Citron and Rose, a hip new glatt kosher restaurant in this upscale suburb of Philadelphia.
Come to think of it, my grandmother would be quite surprised if she knew what they’re doing with the schmaltz, mixing it with fried garlic and onions and serving it as a substitute for butter with our warm dinner rolls.
Citron and Rose, with a modern, tasteful flair and a stylish bar next door to the Philadelphia Community Kollel, is where kosher cuisine means serving the staples of what your grandparents brought over from Eastern Europe – but with a sometimes playful, sometimes surprising re-interpretation.
And if ever there was a team that could pull it all off, this one is a sure winner.
First of all, there’s David Magerman, the Philadelphia philanthropist who opened the restaurant because, as he told me, one way to attract more observant Jews to a community is to give them – what else? – a really good place to eat.
Magerman, who moved here with his wife and children from Long Island, is a powerhouse of creativity: newly-observant, a Stanford PhD with a sub-specialty in artificial intelligence, and the founder of the Kohelet Foundation, which seeks innovative ways to support Jewish day schools.
Magerman admits that he still can’t believe he’s in the restaurant business: “Never in my life did I dream I would own a restaurant....” Of course, he’s got some of the best consultants he could ever find in Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Mid-Atlantic award-winner, and his partner, restaurateur Stephen Cook, who just happened to be interested in doing kosher for their next project – something Magerman characterizes as “beshert.”
Solomonov and Cook continue to please Philadelphia with three restaurants that are not kosher – Zahav, their amazing Israeli eaterie, the Texas-style Percy Street Barbecue, and Federal Donuts, which specializes in take-out donuts and fried chicken. And finally, there’s Yehuda Sichel, chef de cuisine, who grew up in a kosher home in Baltimore and studied culinary arts in Israel.
So here we are, walking into the restaurant on this chilly February evening for a 6 p.m. dinner.
A young hostess greets us warmly at the door, and in no time, someone takes our coats and escort us to our table next to a comfortable banquette. We have a nice view of the open kitchen near the bar, where the young Sichel is busy behind the stove, and where I also spot the mashgiach, the bearded fellow wearing a kippa.
The young wait staff looks so cool in their black outfits and contrasting silver-blue ties – a reminder that Citron and Rose is about as far removed from old world as Eskimos are from Miami.
Which brings me to something Magerman says: “No one involved with our restaurant has any experience with kosher restaurants. That was one of the key things that I wanted to do... bring in a restaurant team – not a kosher restaurant team.” “A lot of the experience [in Citron and Rose],” he notes, “doesn’t feel like the typical kosher restaurant.”
Magerman recalls being told that a kosher restaurant wouldn’t do well and that people wouldn’t come to one, so he decided to “make something that was a restaurant first, and then it just happens to adhere to kosher rules.”
Taking a look around, I can see that the wait staff is a mix of secular and religious, something that is also reflected in the clientele, because there are men wearing kippot, and here and there tzizit are visible. But then, too, there is also a fair number of men with uncovered heads.
Our waitress, attentive and knowledgeable, starts us off with bottled water and then brings us a serving of two types of warm, house-baked rolls – challah and rye – with a small dish of the onion-and-garlic schmaltz, which Sichel says has received “really, really good responses.” I found the serving of chicken fat quite refreshing, adding a rather pleasant layer of taste to the dinner rolls.
Next comes a tasting of house pastrami served with Dijon mustard and sauerkraut, followed by our First Course: my Salad Lyonnaise and my wife’s Celery Root Soup, in the middle of which sits a serving of veal-stuffed cabbage.
The celery root soup, poured by a waiter, is thick, velvety, and flavorful, and the veal-stuffed cabbage comes apart effortlessly.
My Salad Lyonnaise, which substitutes duck breast for the traditional bacon of this classic dish, is served with potatoes cooked in duck fat, morsels of smoked duck, and the customary poached egg – with a frisee in a tangy red wine vinaigrette.
It was so delicious, and if I could make one recommendation, it would be to double down on that wonderful smoked duck.
Next, in between more schmaltz and rolls, is our Second Course: my wife’s Ribeye Steak with potato kugel, glazed onions, and concord grape mustard, and my Lamb Sholet, the Hungarian version of the Shabbat stew I know as cholent. This Citron and Rose version is comprised of braised lamb shank with kishke, haminado, and flageolet beans.
Sichel got his fill of sholet when he accompanied Solomonov on a trip to Budapest to check out kosher cooking there as a prelude to opening Citron and Rose. (Jewish Paris, too, was on the travel-and-food agenda for this trip).
Everywhere they went in Budapest, Sichel tells me, the everpopular sholet was on the menu.
I remember Solomonov talking to me exuberantly about this trip and how taken he was by the kosher food he encountered; in Budapest, he said, he was served “the best matzo-ball soup by far that I’ve ever had in my life.”
My lamb shank has been braised slowly in that old standby of the Shabbat Kiddush, Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine, along with coffee and all-spice; it is so tender that it falls off the bone.
The dish also has some Sephardi elements to it, including prunes, the beans, and half an egg brined in coffee. (In the Sephardic version of cholent, called dafina, an egg is also used, but it is served whole and roasted.
My wife’s steak is cooked as ordered to perfection, and the kugel is a reminder again of the “heavy” Eastern European influences in our dinner.
By the time we complete our second course, there isn’t an empty seat in the restaurant, and the bar is full, too – all of which gives me the feeling that Citron and Rose is becoming a popular local hang-out.
In fact, this is just what Magerman was hoping for.
“Some [observant] people have told me that they’ve never been able to go to a bar as an adult because there were no kosher bars,” he says. “Now there’s a group of people one or two nights a week... who just go and hang out. They sit at the bar, they might have dinner, they might have an appetizer, and they sit there and talk.”
The bar scene comes with kosher wines from around the world, including Israel; American whiskey; single malt Scotch; and beer. There are also cocktails like “The Mensch and the Maidel” (brandy, poppy and apple cider).
“I’ve been [at the bar] for some of these hang-out sessions,” Magerman adds, “and it’s amazing... Jews of all stripes come in, people that you know who are observant or not observant, or people you know from the community, and... they say hello, and you catch up with them for awhile until they’re seated... it’s really a very pleasant, comfortable hang-out.”
In keeping with this element of neighborhood camaraderie, the restaurant’s “coming out party,” if you will, took place at Magerman’s home, where a large crowd of invited guests watched the Super Bowl and ate kosher from the Citron and Rose kitchen.
Meanwhile, back to our dinner...
When it comes time for dessert, we’re so full we’re not sure if we can manage it.
But we simply have to try the French Toast Bread Pudding, which tastes just like a candy treat. And no wonder: this dessert is made with pecan praline and maple – and it comes with a serving of coffee ice cream.
Next time we visit, which I hope will be sooner than later, we’ll try the Dry-Aged Rib-Eye for Two (limited availability), served with horseradish chremsli, pickled green tomatoes, and C&R steak sauce. The steaks are brought in from New York and aged downstairs in the restaurant. Yes, next time for sure...