Jose de Meirelles is going American, and informal. And he’s betting that there’s a market in the Jewish food world for a sophisticated kosher bar.
The owner of the famed kosher steakhouse Le Marais, de Meirelles has just opened The Clubhouse Café, an American-style bar and restaurant located just across the street from his high-toned French kosher steakhouse on West 46th Street. Clubhouse is sleek and minimalist — you could walk right past the restaurant without even realizing it’s there.
Despite its glitzy theater district locale, Clubhouse bills itself as a new genre of kosher dining, offering classic American-style cuisine of hamburgers, spicy lamb chili and, of course, rib-eye steak.
The restaurant is attracting the attention of young, hip Jewish professionals — a majority of them men — who have taken to the bar atmosphere. The extensive drinks menu features four types of red wine, popular Sangria wine punch and Brazilian Caipirinha cocktails. Fun finger foods such as duck empanadas, chicken wings and sliders (mini burgers) double as both quick snack and au courant appetizer.
“Most kosher restaurants are primarily focused on the sit-down meal, and they also happen to have a bar,” says Clubhouse fan Avi Mally, a Riverdale resident who works at AC Lion, a boutique recruiting firm located just a block from the restaurant. “Clubhouse is the only place where I can actually order drinks and bar food, while avoiding the formalities of a sit-down meal.”
The atmosphere at Clubhouse is perfect for grabbing a drink and watching the big game with friends after work on the large-screen TV up by the bar, Mally says.
Others see it as an optimal setting for that first date: Not as formal or expensive as Le Marais, but more upscale than KD (Kosher Delight). Clubhouse is the sort of restaurant that doesn’t use tablecloths, yet retains an aura of class.
“The red-tint lighting and New Age background music” give the restaurant a trendy vibe, says Joseph Shmulewitz, a Cardozo law student who has visited Clubhouse several times since it first opened. Not only is the music chilled-out, but also the acoustics are significantly better than those at Le Marais.
Former fashion designer Maria de Meirelles, Jose’s wife, decorated the space. Instead of gaudy chandeliers, she opted for modern-looking globe fixtures. “There are no posters or art on the walls,” brags de Meirelles. They left the naked brick wall as is and covered the opposite wall with sleek, rectangular mirrors.
Clubhouse’s menu boasts a variety of sandwiches, ranging from grilled chicken, roast veal and tuna club sandwiches, for between $10 and $15. Hamburgers, fish & chips, southern fried chicken and other entrees will run you in the low- to mid-$20 range.
Side dishes, such as homemade slaw, potato salad and French fries, cost $6.50. And if you’re a chocolate lover, here’s a recommendation for dessert: order the chocolate salami (it only looks like a salami).
The Clubhouse Café is very much a sister restaurant to Le Marais. In fact, it cribbed the name off the upstairs room at Le Marais, which was nicknamed “clubhouse” at a time when patrons could still puff away at their cigars in the mahogany paneled room. De Meirelles added “café” to the name to invoke the informal nature of the restaurant.
When he and his wife came to New York from Portugal 25 years ago, de Meirelles, 50, worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint at a bank, and eventually became a driver for a wealthy family in New Jersey. He stumbled on his passion one day when he tried his hand at preparing meals for the family. “I fell in love with cooking,” he says. So he enrolled at The French Culinary Institute in Soho and began working as a chef for a succession of restaurants.
His dream of running his own restaurant was realized in 1990, when he and a partner opened up Les Halles, a non-kosher brasserie named for Paris’ central marketplace. Five years later, the two decided to open up a kosher version of the restaurant. “A lot of our customers would tell us that their children became religious and refused to eat at a non-kosher restaurant,” de Meirelles recalls. “So we decided it was a good idea to open up a similar restaurant, only it would be kosher.”
He envisioned a high-quality French restaurant that just happened to be kosher. He and his business partner, Phillipe Lajunie, named the restaurant Le Marais after the storied Jewish neighborhood in Paris.
“We didn’t want anything on the door saying that the restaurant was kosher except the certification symbol in the window,” he says.
The first challenge he faced was the belief at the time that kosher meat was tough and not nearly as tasty as non-kosher meat. “People would say that kosher meat is as hard as a rock,” he says. After visiting many glatt kosher butcher shops, de Meirelles discovered the problem: wholesalers weren’t aging the beef. He checked with his kashrut consultant to ensure that there was no halachic ruling against the aging process, which there wasn’t.
The aging process takes four to five weeks and shrinks the beef by approximately 30 percent, which cuts in on profits, de Meirelles says. “You have to pay for it in advance and hold onto the inventory, keeping it properly refrigerated.” He perfected the art of the properly aged steak and found that kosher meat actually tastes quite good. “That was a major key to our success,” he says.
His next challenge was whipping up a substitute for his secret ingredient: the béarnaise sauce. The traditional béarnaise consists of butter and egg yolks flavored with tarragon and shallots and simmered in vinegar. Since butter and steak don’t mix, de Meirelles had to find a way of substituting margarine for butter without marring the taste. Desserts were also a problem. “I played around with non-dairy creamer,” he says. “It was a big learning curve.”
He soon learned that the kosher week operates in an entirely different way. “Wednesday and Thursday nights are our weekend,” he says, adding that kosher restaurants are the busiest on those days. “Sundays is also a very good day for business. It’s a family day. In the non-kosher world, Sunday is really quiet.”
A few years ago, de Meirselles and his partner split. His partner took over operations at Les Halles and de Meirselles continued to run Le Marais on his own.
Two years ago, de Meirselles opened a non-kosher wine and tapas bar named Tintol, which means “red wine” in Portuguese slang. When business slacked off, he decided to turn the restaurant into a kosher bar and cafe — and Clubhouse was born.