Amidst the pandemic-stricken landscape of central Brooklyn, the high end kosher restaurant MEAT stands out against the 99 cent store and local deli across the street.
Even before the pandemic, the restaurant, with ceiling-to-floor glass windows, waiters outfitted in formal attire and a security guard minding the entrance, stood out starkly in its northern Crown Heights milieu, just a few B44 stops away from Bedford Stuyvesant. Now, with a limited guest capacity of 25 percent and a city-mandated 10:00 pm curfew, the restaurant feels like a relic of another time and place.
But customers are venturing back out for the luxury dining experience, said Danny Branover, MEAT’s owner and the head of Basil Hospitality Group, which owns and operates two other artisanal kosher eateries in the neighborhood. The restaurant — which has been open again for just short of a month after shuttering in March because of the pandemic — is pulling in patrons looking to return to “life in full color” after the bleak past few months.
Times are tough, but people still want a reason to get out and celebrate.
“Times are tough, but people still want a reason to get out and celebrate,” said Branover, who has been working to bring the restaurant to fruition for almost a decade (he first purchased the renovated landmark building in 2012). Now equipped with a full bar, wine cellar, coal-burning oven and meat-aging room, MEAT is intended to “transport guests to a different place,” he said.
Branover’s vision for the restaurant was to “elevate kosher food.” “I didn’t want customers to feel like that had to sacrifice any quality in order to keep kosher,” said Branover, who splits his time between Crown Heights and Jerusalem, where he runs an energy management company.
The journey towards opening MEAT was rife with challenges, from navigating extensive city bureaucracy to an initially strained relationship with locals who felt the restaurant’s opulent decor, noticeable security presence and high price point clashed and even insulted the neighborhood’s previous culture.
And then, of course, Covid-19 hit. The restaurant had to lay off a significant portion of its staff and close up shop only months after its long-awaited opening. (One unexpected silver lining: Meat that was intended to age several weeks has only improved while the pandemic raged and the restaurant stood empty.)
Still, Branover has no regrets.
“My wife, she’ll give you a different answer,” he joked during a phone interview. “But for me, when I go in there now and I see the quality of food we are producing and the unique experience we are creating for customers, I think it was worth it.”
MEAT’s executive chef, 32-year-old Reem Look, moved to Brooklyn from Jerusalem to head up Branover’s operation. As Branover tells it, he poached the young and talented Look from the kitchen of the Jerusalem King David Hotel, where Look was known for his French-inspired dishes. Look, who rose to the position of executive chef at the Herbert Samuel Hotel in Jerusalem by age 28, is somewhat of a cooking prodigy. “He’s been perfecting things in the kitchen since he was 15,” boasted Branover, though Look brushed off the compliments.
The menu — with adventurous options including duck fettuccine, veal sweetbreads and doughy sambusak stuffed with gizzards and chickpeas — is intended to challenge the kosher diner, said Look.
“We wanted to create a menu with integrity,” said Look, who prides himself on making everything — from mustard to date honey to tahini — in house. He is averse to the distinctly Jewish tradition of reinventing dairy foods with parve, or non-dairy, alternatives (margarine offends his culinary sensibilities). Despite the restaurant’s name, Look added that the menu does provide vegetarian and vegan alternatives.
Dessert options do not include the classic molten chocolate cake with a scoop of non-dairy ice cream. Instead, the dessert menu offers a delicate fruit, vegetable and fresh herb granita and zabaione, composed of cranberry and champagne.
(Look described the response he received from customers when they first saw “fruit and vegetable salad” on the dessert menu. “What is this?” they said. “This is not a dessert menu!” After asking waiters to push the dish, the salad has become one of the most popular items on the menu, he said.)
Soso Bokuchava, the restaurant’s maître d’, said it is his mission to help people “feel at home” in the restaurant, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“People come here to get away from things for a little bit,” said Bokuchava, who already seemed to know many of the customers by first name. “It is not for everyone, but people who appreciate what we are serving come back,” he said, patting a gentleman on the shoulder as he ushered him through the glass doors.
With green ivy draped from the skylights, dimmed lights and candle-lit tables and a wine list that includes the rare 1999 Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (listed for $750/bottle), there was an air of luxury and lavishness about the experience that felt like a relic of a carefree past. The tables, carefully stationed six feet apart, filled steadily on a recent weeknight with guests who took off their masks once seated to sip wine and colorful cocktails. It felt, for the first time in a long time, festive.
“I did not open this place because it makes sense,” Branover said. “I opened this restaurant because it’s a passion.”