Abraham may have created the first pop-up feast, hosting strangers in his open tent, offering choice and rare delicacies.
Into that food tradition — spurred by the vagaries of the restaurant business and the pressures of the recession — comes Dan Lenchner.
On a Long Island City, Queens street lined with warehouses and industrial buildings in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, Lenchner, of Manna Catering, has opened the first kosher pop-up restaurant, complete with a mashgiach in the kitchen. While there’s a tradition of pop-up kosher-for-Passover stores in the weeks leading up to the holiday, none have included restaurants.
Since November, Lenchner has been staging singular dinners about every six weeks, each with a different theme. Last month’s Israeli feast was the third. Twenty-seven diners traveled from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island for a multicourse meal inspired by Lenchner’s recent trip to Israel.
“I’m a frustrated restaurant chef,” Lenchner joked, explaining that he has been a caterer for 30 years and never had a restaurant. The pop-up model gives him the freedom to cook what he wishes and present it in new ways.
Throughout New York City, at a time when many storefronts are vacant, pop-up restaurants as well as pop-up shops and galleries allow chefs, designers and artists new opportunities to showcase their creativity. These places are, on the whole, stylish, experimental and decidedly temporary.
“Opening a restaurant in Manhattan has become about as much of a production as staging a play on Broadway, and only slightly less expensive,” said Pete Wells, chief restaurant critic for The New York Times, in an e-mail exchange. “Pop-ups allow chefs to skip a lot of that initial investment so they’re free to take a few risks. And if things don’t work out, well, by definition a pop-up has to end some day, right?”
Manna’s pop-ups are a collaborative effort between Lenchner and his 25-year-old son Yair, a line cook at The Mark who previously worked as a waiter at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison. Yair attended the French Culinary Institute after graduating from the joint undergraduate program at Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia. The senior Lenchner creates the menus and his son does much of the implementation. Yair started out working for Manna and now, as his father explains, “has restaurant experience that I don’t have.”
Guests entered Manna’s February one-night-stand of a restaurant through a large door, opening to a romantically lit 19th-century foundry restored at the turn of this century — the only foundry still standing in the area, where several used to supply local riverfront manufacturers — and now used as an events space. The brick walls, archways and high industrial ceiling, mixed with the white tablecloths set with china, glassware and candles, hinted at the unexpected nature of the evening.
The menu, beginning with a row of seven assertive Israeli salads set in small white bowls, was clearly well thought out. A colorful lineup, the mezze, as these small plates are known, included savory and unusual combinations, like carrots with melon and mint, chickpeas with tehina, beets with Sabra fuit, and grape leaves filled with faro. Lafah, a pita-like bread, and labucha, a Yemenite sponge bread, could be used to scoop up the spreads and salads, along with zhoug, Yemenite hot paste, and amba, an Israeli-Iraqi sauce with Indian roots.
A shot glass filled with Jerusalem artichoke soup topped with dukka, an Egyptian spice blend, followed. Lenchner later explained that the soup was inspired by the Jerusalem artichokes seen in Israeli markets. It seemed simple enough to make at home: roasted chokes pureed with a bit of salt and water.
Yair did much of the assembling work at a long table in the dining area, so guests could watch his artistry. Lenchner and his wife, Joni Greenspan, circulated through the dining room to share ingredients, spices and origins of the dishes. Next up was a plate of Sudanese ful, baked fava beans pureed with garlic and topped with sautéed oyster mushrooms and tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil. Lencher and Greenspan had seen ful served this way, with shaved hard-boiled eggs on top, in a small restaurant run by Sudanese immigrants near the Tel Aviv bus station. Whenever the two travel, they make sure to scope out the food in places that might be considered dives, to get a sense of what people are eating. In Egypt, where they visited, ful is eaten for breakfast.
“Ful is such a down-home thing. It’s hard to do it in catering — it’s wonderful slop. No one wants to eat it at weddings, but it’s delicious,” Lenchner said.
Israeli red and white wines were poured generously, with a Dalton 2009 oak-aged Shiraz and Tishbi’s 2010 Sauvigon Blanc. The recorded jazz tunes of Avishai Cohen, an Israeli bassist who frequently performs in New York, played in the background.
Before the main course, servers brought out ramekins of shakshuka with zaatar, a Libyan traditional dish made of poached eggs in a spicy sauce; here roasted peppers were used instead of the usual tomatoes.
Diners then chose between roasted lamb with rosemary, garlic and pomegranate mujadrah, or grilled cod with saffron and preserved lemon, with toasted Israeli couscous. Lenchner explained that lamb is a very popular Middle Eastern dish and the mujadrah, a rice pilaf with lentil and fried onions, is a Palestinian dish that he first tasted in an Arab village in the Galilee 20 years ago. Tracing the origins of these dishes, he said, can be difficult as the different cultures overlap.
For dessert, Yair carefully cross-hatched each rectangular plate with amber-colored silan, a kind of date syrup, before adding the centerpiece, kataifi with pistachios and rosewater, a shredded wheat confection seen all over the Middle East. The Lenchner version includes marinated figs and barberry, a tiny sour fruit often used in Iranian cooking.
Dan Lenchner, who was born in Israel (he came here as a child and later returned and served in the Israel Defense Forces), admits to a sentimental attachment to Israeli food.
“For the longest time, that meant falafel and hummus,” he said, acknowledging that until about 10 years ago, Israelis didn’t take their own food seriously. Now, he says, more respect is being paid to simple foods from Libya, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and other places, and Israeli food is a fusion of Sephardic food from all of these places from which immigrants came.
But unlike “American fusion” food that is driven by restaurants and chefs, the particular Israeli fusion is naturally occurring, driven by people of different backgrounds who live side by side and taste each other’s cooking, he said. And now, immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, West Africa, Sudan, Vietnam and China are adding to the mix.
Diners at Manna’s Israeli pop-up included one woman whose wedding was catered by Manna with two friends; another woman, along with her grandparents, whose upcoming wedding will be a Manna affair; a pair of friends from Brooklyn planning a gala event for their school; a couple of party planners and their guests and others who had heard about it via word of mouth.
When asked about the success of the series of pop-ups, Lenchner said, “It depends on your definition of success. Not as a stand-alone business proposition, and we’ve only broken even. On the other hand, they’ve been successful in that people enjoy them now and we’ve had quite a few repeat customers. And it gives us an opportunity to communicate with our customers in a way we don’t do otherwise.
“Also, success is having fun, which is a big deal,” he adds.
Manna’s next pop-up dinner will be on April 26, with an Italian spring theme. For reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost is $100 per person exclusive of tax and tip, with red and white wines included.