There aren’t too many kosher restaurants where you can order a hot corned beef sandwich, and follow it up with a bagel smeared with cream cheese and lox. But office workers and tourists alike can do just that at the newest kosher eatery in the Financial District, the Milk Street Cafe.
Milk Street, a branch of an establishment that opened in Boston almost 30 years ago, features three separate kitchens — dairy, meat and pareve — almost a dozen different food stations, corporate catering services and seating for 150 people, all in a 23,000-square-foot “food hall.”
“If I died and went to heaven, this is the space I would want,” said owner Marc Epstein, of the restaurant’s location at 40 Wall St., inside the Trump Building. For Epstein, creating the café and catering kitchen is a dream come true. “I’ve looked to come into New York four times,” he said, “and it was economically impossible.”
Though he credits the recession with bringing rents down to affordable levels and thus enabling him to secure the space, “if you want to get out of a recession, you gotta come eat,” he told the crowd that gathered outside the restaurant where he rang an “opening bell.” Epstein claimed that the restaurant is an economic boon to the area, creating almost 120 new jobs.
Five of those jobs have the same title: mashgiach, or kosher supervisor. “Most restaurants have one mashgiach,” said Rabbi Leonard Steinberg, rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union, which certifies the restaurant. “Some have two,” he said, adding that five was the most he’d ever heard of. With the three separate kitchens, “it’s a busy place,” Rabbi Steinberg said, “you need somebody to circulate.” To that end there are two shifts during the day with two supervisors each, and one overnight. “There needs to be somebody constantly walking around,” said the rabbi, in addition to the standard mashgiach requirements of checking ingredients, turning on stoves and inspecting vegetables.
And while behind the scenes meat and dairy are kept completely separate, Rabbi Steinberg recognizes that he can’t control the food once it has been purchased. “It’s designed to be a little difficult” for shoppers to go back and forth between the meat and dairy side, he said, “but it’s certainly possible, that a non-Jew can get a coffee with milk and eat a steak sandwich.” For kosher patrons who want to enjoy their panini while a friend eats a turkey sandwich, placemats are available to create a more clear separation.
While the menu presents some kashrut challenges, Epstein wouldn’t have it any other way. “Milk Street tries to be a strictly kosher restaurant in the real world,” he said. “The vast majority of people who come in are non-Jewish people. I built it this way because I felt this was exactly what was needed here for the people in the building.”
Those without a kosher-trained eye might not notice anything out of the ordinary in the expansive restaurant, which boasts a pasta bar, sushi station and bakery. There are two adjoining salad bars, with a glass wall between them: the “Bull Market” station offers the traditional salad toppings, in addition to chicken, turkey and steak, while the “Farmer’s Market” station gives the option of salmon, tuna, tofu and a variety of cheeses.
And while the varied menu offers options for vegetarians, carnivores and everything in between, some things just didn’t make the cut — by design. While you can order hot dogs, sliced steak or grilled chicken, there are no hamburgers for sale. The pasta bar includes baked ziti and eggplant parmesan, but no lasagna. “You have to offer food that the regular American wouldn’t say — ‘where’s the cheese for the cheeseburger?’ or ‘I need meat in this lasagna,’” Epstein explained.
For an area of Manhattan lacking in kosher sit-down locations, Milk Street is a welcome addition for many local Jewish workers.
“The options are so limited now,” said Stanley Berger, who works in the area and stopped by for the opening. While he usually brings food from home or stops on his way to work to pick something up, “I look forward to this now,” he said. He is hoping to open a “Brownie Points” account (to accumulate points towards gift cards or catering) for himself, his daughter and daughter-in-law. “They’re waiting to use it.”
Edward Ochs also works near the restaurant, and he sampled the free coffee and cookies on opening day. As a kosher consumer, he is happy to see new options opening.
“There aren’t really any alternatives,” he said. “It’s a very welcome presence in the downtown area.”