For a restaurant aiming to modernize kosher cuisine in New York, the decor at Soho’s Jezebel is decidedly old-fashioned bordello. In the bar, you’ll find flashy velvet curtains and dimpled black leather, grim lighting, and recessed, glowing arches in spackled walls. When a jazzy number plays on the sound system, as it sometimes does, you could easily be on a set of True Blood, during some vampire’s historically inaccurate flashback.
Still, it’s a nice place to lounge about. Especially if you have one of Nick Mautone’s cocktails in hand. Mautone, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, has carefully designed a menu of sophisticated drinks using kosher spirits and liqueurs. “Really, even the cocktails are kosher?” my companion asked. “Honey,” replied the sassy cocktail waitress, “this whole building is kosher.”
Of course the laws of kashruth don’t actually apply to the building, razed in 1907 and rebuilt by a shipping company, but I got her point: The kitchen and bar are dairy-free and under rabbinical supervision. In addition to the cocktails, the ground-floor lounge offers a small menu of food you might find poolside at a posh hotel—properly fat lamb burgers in weird pseudo buns ($26) with hot fries, and excellent duck rillettes ($12) with the thin, golden toasts tucked inside a folded white napkin. These dishes are not bad, though it’s a bit silly to get heavy silverware wrapped up in a pristine cloth napkin with a big ol’ pile of chicken drumsticks in a spicy jerk seasoning ($16). What you really need here is a wet wipe.
On one evening, this lounge housed a mix of cute, dressed-up families and business meetings. Parents used their phones to light the menus; kids used their phones to update their Facebook status. But on another night, eight couples filled the space, all of us seated with our backs against the wall, stealing glances at one another while we sipped our drinks. One woman with a playbill in her hand giggled as she ordered Aaron’s Staff, a cocktail made with almond milk. About half the men wore black yarmulkes.
In the main dining room, on the second floor, the space and menu get bigger and brighter. There are white seats, exposed-beam ceilings, and hanging chandeliers. The friendly waitresses wear suspenders and bow ties instead of the fitted cocktail dresses with frilly waists seen at the bar. Onion rolls arrive quickly, with a plate of carrot puree, smooth like baby food, but exquisitely spiced and seasoned. A lamb-filled agnolotti ($15) is made with care—the pasta itself delicate, the filling flavorful.
The food can be good at Jezebel, but more often it is sloppy. The massive brick of crispy-skinned char with corn puree, fresh favas, and fresh herbs ($32) was a sweet plate, with nothing to temper it out. And a greasy Cornish hen ($32) was served with the washed-out vegetables you push around hopelessly at a wedding banquet, wishing you were drunk enough to dance.
There’s a trend in New York of embracing and updating classics of the Jewish table, but Jezebel isn’t elevating gefilte fish. Co-owners Menachem Senderowicz and Henry Stimler hired Bradford Thompson, who won a James Beard Award for his work back in Arizona, to design a modern American menu and serve as “culinary director”—though you’ll find a few nods to Jewish classics, like the Jewish-Italian wedding soup.
The menu is divided traditionally into appetizers and entrées, with a section devoted to steaks and chops. Although the portions are enormous, they are not meant to be shared. A side bowl of tender veal meatballs ($11) swimming in a sharp tomato sauce is fine, but it’s a strange thing to see in the same dining room as a composed plate of glazed duck with a confit leg and roasted fennel ($42). While service and food are alright, neither seem at the level to justify these kinds of prices. Still, Jezebel is packed with diners who find them perfectly reasonable.
Much of the art on the walls puts a Jewish celebrity’s face on a classic painting, and when the Winklevoss twins came here recently to celebrate their 31st birthdays, they reportedly posed beneath a painting of Benjamin Franklin featuring Mark Zuckerberg’s face instead of our founding father’s. I did not run into the twins at Jezebel. Instead at the table beside me, there was a gray-haired gentleman drinking wine and sharing a plate of charcuterie ($20) with his wife. He had a complaint, but it was not about the food. “Everyone here is so young and rich,” he said. “It’s awful.