Kutsher's Tribeca: Pseudo Summer in the City
On my most memorable visit to Kutsher's Tribeca, I went with three generations of a family who might be seen as Catskills royalty. The grandparents came up from the bungalow colonies—where many Lower East Side Jews summered in the '50s and '60s—and later bought a vacation home for themselves and their children in Smallwood, a resort community built in the log-cabin-style southeast of White Lake. Their youngest son, now middle-age, was bar mitzvahed at Kutsher's Resort just outside of Monticello and eventually worked there as a waiter. I asked him what the food was like back then, and without pausing, he snorted, "Not too great."
We were spread out at a large table in Kutsher's Tribeca, an elegant newcomer that seeks to channel the vibe of the ancient Catskills resort property. And, indeed, the giant double dining room—with its airy whiteness, walls of wood slats turned sideways and bolted together in wavelike patterns, and general Danish-modern decor—makes it seem like Mad Men on vacation. There are virtually no incongruous elements—except for the light fixtures over the bar, which resemble giant spiders.
I was most apprehensive about the charcuterie. What would the pastrami be like gussied-up and removed from a Katz's-type setting? The "Delicatessen" section of the menu presents five cured meats, plus chopped liver. The selections arrive faintly warm on a long wooden plank, accompanied by grainy mustard and horseradish mayo (which the menu calls "aioli"—yeah, and I'm Rip Van Winkle). But the two types of pastrami, flat and deckle, are absolutely wonderful in their smokiness, fattiness, and deep, deep red color. Both are also tender as hell, every bit as good as Katz's. And the smoked veal tongue's even better than that, soft as summer moonlight on a mountain lake.
The chopped liver mixes calf and duck organs in a chunky matrix, no better or worse than authentic deli chopped liver. The duck pastrami also fails to make much of an impression, mainly because the real pastrami is so damn good. All the elements of the deli platter (three for $16, six for $25) are made in-house, except the salami, which, rather than seeming Jewish, reminds you of something you got in a little town in Italy. There's also a frankfurter wrapped in pastry on the kids' menu. I'd advise you to pretend to be a kid and get one ($9).
The miracle of the menu is that it resolutely stays within the canon of Jewish-American vernacular food, lovingly revamped by chef Mark Spangenthal. Rather than trailing jelly, gefilte fish is no longer the terror of the Passover table, but compressed pucks of nicely textured fish with a memorably mild flavor. Another stunted cylinder of beets and horseradish accompanies it, surmounted by a bird's nest of chicory. The matzo-ball soup ($11) is close to perfection, with a clear, light broth and crushed-cracker orbs of the "big balls" school. A wealth of chopped vegetables gives the potage body and staying power. It made me love matzo-ball soup all over again, and the matriarch of the clan pronounced it "very good."
There's also a fine app of pickled herring done two ways; acceptable (but smallish) latkes; a formidable pickle plate, including green tomatoes; and french fries cooked in duck schmaltz. Occasionally, the menu dips into Sephardic cooking, and here it does well with one dish and poorly with another. The fried artichokes, Roman ghetto–style ($13), come hidden in a salad, which is not a bad idea. The salmon in a reputed falafel crust—a decent-sized fillet with a scatter of crumbs that fall off when you cut into them—proves disappointing. Hey, a crust should be a crust. "Farm-raised!" sniffed a friend of the salmon one evening—which was her equivalent of treif.
You could be happy noshing among the snacks and apps, but a series of full-blown main courses also beckons. Half are interesting enough to make it worth the calories. My fave is flanken ($24): boneless short ribs stewed in red wine into dark and savory oblivion, served with dreamy, schmaltz-laced mashed spuds. The Romanian steak is admirable, too. Roast chicken ($38) comes as a two-person entrée on a giant platter and stuffed with mushrooms. The pieces are nicely browned, for sure, but I found the breast a bit dry, and the table of Catskillian fressers couldn't quite finish it.
"I'll take the rest home for later," the matriarch conceded. And she left, bearing a doggie bag, on the arm of her youngest son.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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