There’s no greater transgression in Jewish cooking—hell, all of Hebrew law—than the adulteration of the latke. Not eating bacon. Or shrimp. Even bacon-wrapped shrimp. And Nikki Cascone’s latkes make her a sinner—a bad one.
Cascone, best known for being a contestant on Top Chef Season Four, helms the kitchen and co-owns Octavia’s Porch, a new East Village restaurant dishing up “global Jewish” cuisine. The name doesn’t reference her bubbe’s verandah, but instead pays homage to the ancient edifice and passageway in Rome’s former Jewish ghetto. But don’t worry—her space hardly resembles a slum. Instead, vintage fixtures cast a warm glow over the 30 or so wooden tables, divided between a lively front room with a bar and a more sedate, partially banquette-lined back area.
Despite the nod to Italy, Octavia’s Porch’s menu celebrates the Eastern European Ashkenazi tradition more than the Sephardic. Kosher laws won’t apply here, but shellfish and pork aren’t gracing the menu, either. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve made it to the land of milk and honey, though—the menu has a few hits, but many more missteps.
Every meal begins auspiciously with a loaf of freshly baked challah and soft, sweet butter. It would be easy to fill up on it, but get your farinaceous fix instead by ordering the fat knish ($6), plumped with wild mushrooms and potatoes. For the (slightly) more Atkins-inclined, the $9 kreplach (or beef-and-veal dumplings to those not raised in a shul) nestle among caramelized onions. They’re rich umami bombs, coated in a soy-based sauce, almost Asian in flavor.
Iffier is the matzoh ball soup ($6), grossly underseasoned on one visit but well-balanced on another; the halved brussels sprouts, julienned carrots, and sliced zucchini all offer a welcome crunch to the dish, which frequently has the texture of baby food. But nothing can help the fennel and mushroom ceviche ($7), overwhelmed by mouth-puckering lemon juice. And while assorted pickles ($8) look pretty on the plate, your taste buds will ultimately disagree.
The restaurant peddles its fair share of comfort foods, possibly a nod to Cascone’s former restaurant, 24 Prince. Winning dishes include the wild salmon ($18), served with a pickled cucumber and red onion slaw and a creamy cauliflower purée, and the roasted farm chicken ($19), propped up by a square of date and challah stuffing. Those with a sweet tooth will surely devour the stuffing, while the accompanying Tuscan kale helps cleanse the palate.
These dishes far surpass the buckwheat tagliatelle ($14) with goat cheese, radicchio, and roasted garlic. It sounds enticing, but the bland, gummy bowl of noodles recalls something spooned out at a student dinner party—at a school like Wesleyan. Even worse was the brisket sandwich ($12), stuffed with dry, freezing-cold meat on pre-toasted bread. A side of kraut ($5) tasted bitter, as if the cooks had prepared it in a pan charred with burnt food. Alas, desserts can’t rectify the meal. Skip the bready peanut butter and jelly sinkers ($7) and the oddly textured banana challah pudding ($7). Go instead with the boozy chocolate egg cream ($10)—any disappointments in eating or life are easily mollified by a stiff drink.
But back to the latkes ($5). Overdosing on cinnamon, these shredded sweet potato pucks always arrived completely raw in the middle—and were served with a chunky apple compote saturated with vanilla extract and chilies. Why, Nikki? Don’t you know that veering from the Idaho potato and applesauce route only leads you into trouble?
It’s too bad the food fails as much as it does here because the menu is innovative and Cascone has a real opportunity to become New York’s badass Jewish cooking maven. But for now, Octavia’s Porch is little more than an exercise in mishigas.