Nikki Cascone Talks About Her New Restaurant, What Exactly 'Global Jewish Cuisine' Is, and Just How Kosher It Will Be
The Top Chef alum was forced to close her restaurant, 24 Prince, earlier this year, but quickly started planning a new venture. Octavia's Porch is slated to open in late fall, when it will bring "global Jewish cuisine" to Avenue B. Wondering what the heck that means? Nikki Cascone explains ...
What's the status of your new restaurant?
The restaurant's name is Octavia's Porch. It's named after the Roman Jewish ghetto. There's a pizza there called Porta Octavia. We really wanted a story behind our name and that was one of the first places I realized that there were Jews all over the world -- even places like Italy -- doing unbelievable food that had an influence on the cuisine in the countries they resided in. I didn't know that before then and felt pretty naive being that I had a Jewish mom and an Italian dad.
Do you have an opening date yet?
We're now saying late October and hope it won't be too much later. You know, restaurant openings can be tricky. We're on schedule now, but I hope I didn't jinx it by saying that.
Are you working on menu items yet?
We started recipe testing this week and tasting. There's Eastern European influences, Egyptian, Ukrainian, Hungarian ... you name it. It is global Jewish cuisine. I wanted to emphasize that Jewish food is more than just deli, which really was invented here in New York City. I'm trying to do classic dishes with a modern "Nikki" twist and expose people to less traditional dishes that they may not have seen from some other parts of the world. You eat it and think, "Oh, that's Jewish?" Things like eggplant caponata that the Arabics and Jews introduced to Italians, then Italians got all the credit for it. Jewish really was the first fusion cuisine.
Will the food be kosher?
The restaurant is Jewish by culture and not by religion. So, although we're not going to be kosher, we are not going to serve shellfish and pork.
Are you reviving any dishes from 24 Prince?
For one, I do a very classic matzoh ball, but my twist is that I serve it with a giant handful of fresh market vegetables. And I put some scallion there, so it becomes a classic dish with a not-so-classic presentation. I have a bit of a cult following from 24 Prince so I'm going to bring it over with the matzoh ball soup.
What will the wine list be like?
We're talking to two different wineries about doing a white and a red on tap. One of the wineries is in New York and the other is in Washington State. We have a New York company that's supplying us with old milk bottles that we're going to serve the wine in. There are a couple Hebrew brewers we're in touch with, too. Beer is a very old Jewish relationship. The neighborhood where we are started out German and when Jews came they ate in pubs every night. They didn't have money to go out and drink wine, so beer was a big part of their culture. What will you be breaking your fast with this Yom Kippur?
There's usually two meals. The first one, because you're breaking your fast, you want to be a little on the lighter side. It's more of a brunch. One of the things I love is blintzes. I found these dynamite figs in the market and made this unbelievably good fig sauce. So, I'm doing a savory-sweet blintz with mascarpone and Brooklyn ricotta cheese, blended, and I toasted up some pumpkin seeds and did a fig and pumpkin seed topping. My Yom Kippur meals are pretty nontraditional.
What are some of your food memories from your childhood?
I just remember chicken soup being an all-day event. It wasn't just throwing some chicken in a pot. It was a lot of love. My mom clarified the stock and made vegetables and we pulled the chicken off the bone and the matzoh balls had to cook for an hour and a half. That's definitely one of my favorites. Brisket is another one. I do brisket a million different ways now, but slow-cooked meat is a classic for Jews around the world. You cooked your meat during the fast, and when it was over, you had this unbelievable braised product.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I love warm desserts and the contrast with cold, so warm pie or cake with ice cream. For me, it's hard to keep ice cream out of the equation. You'll see a lot of my desserts at the restaurant will be warm fruit cakes, strudel, stuff like that. A few things with chocolate, too, like a twist on an egg cream with vodka.
Stay tuned for more of the interview tomorrow ...
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