There's a vintage fedora in my family, a brown wool beauty passed down from my grandpa to my brother Terry, who happened to wear it to dinner recently at Abe Fisher.
It could have been the promise of an epic pastrami, or just my cartoonist bro's natural embrace of alter cocker chic. Either way, he was appropriately on theme: A similar fedora happens to be Abe Fisher's logo, a mid-20th-century relic meant to evoke an era of dapper old Jewish men long gone, along with the Ashkenazic flavors that sustained them.
The "k" dishes that defined early deli dining - kishke and kasha varnishkes - have largely faded like Yiddish from modern consciousness. Gefilte fish has been reduced to a Passover punch line. Beet juice and Manischewitz? Not exactly the sex-symbol mix-ins of the craft cocktail generation.
That is, not until Abe Fisher came to life like a gastronomic golem, an ever-morphing composite of vintage Jewish flavors and memories reimagined and modernized by chef-partners Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook.
But if Cook-n-Solo's first gem, Zahav, is all about Israel, Abe Fisher is their tribute to the Diaspora, whose far-flung poles of influence, from Brooklyn to Budapest, Montreal and beyond, is both inspiring and dauntingly wide.
Their executive chef and collaborator, Yehuda Sichel, has grown as a lead chef since their first stab at the subject at Citron and Rose (with which they're no longer affiliated). And he wields schmaltz here like liquid gold. It adds sublime richness to flaky and warm little rugelach rolled with melted onions that come instead of bread to the table in cigar boxes (along with an equally irresistible variety with olives and prunes). It adds a luxurious gloss to pastrami-spiced onion jam that sits beneath a satiny chopped-liver mousse. It adds pliancy and fluff to the house-made tortillas for the veal schnitzel tacos.
That's right - tacos.
"In the same way Zahav doesn't reproduce stock Israeli food, we're not cooking here like Jewish grandmothers," says Solomonov.
So true. Unless your bubbe stuffed duck necks like sausage with a kishke of ground leg meat, challah, and eggs, then served it over ducky lentils with a plump whole dry-aged breast that has been rubbed with smoked paprika and roasted Hungarian-style for a masterful two-person feast.
A meal at someone's home in Budapest, in fact, was the seed for Abe's brilliant rehab for "gefilte." It has evolved on Sansom Street into a crosscut slice of boneless whole trout stuffed with ground smoked trout, walnuts, and matzo meal. The whole silvery tube is glazed with a carrot-Port reduction over silky carrot puree that sparkles with horseradish.
But the cheffy approach wasn't always superior to homespun granny soul: I loved the instinct to transform traditional kasha and bow ties into an elegant ravioli tossed with poppy seeds, peas, and truffle butter. But the buckwheat stuffing was too refined, and lacked the earthy chew I love best about toasted groats. A broccoli chimichurri atop the Romanian skirt steak was too much garlic for an already powerfully zesty meat.
Those dishes were a nudge away from spectacular. But much of this menu is already there, from the borscht tartare (a meaty look-alike of shredded beets tinted with horseradish vinegar, and jewels of smoked trout roe) to the caraway-roasted carrots with prune butter and cubes of pumpernickel bread pudding.
The sweet-and-sour meatballs with celery root are Sichel's irresistible update to everyone's favorite bar mitzvah buffet nibble. A sea bass two ways - crudo cured with caraway vinegar and pomegranate seeds; marinated and mashed with avocado cream cheese - was a tasty double-take for a beautiful fish. Intensely smoked sable, crisped into an Old Bay-scented cake, was Sichel's nod to his Maryland roots.
Unlike kosher Citron and Rose, Abe's menu boldly presents the trayf of shellfish and pork to reflect, as Cook says, "that modern Jews eat all kinds of ways." The melty pink ribbons of corned pork belly on the mini-reubens make a convincing case. But the diced salami and eggs, which form a delicate mini-frittata over shrimp fried rice, is an exquisite ode to Chinatown's special place in American-Jewish culture. An "egg cream" dessert with crunchy bacon layered between maple custard and chocolate mousse is the best argument I've tasted against my new ban on bacon for dessert. Drizzled with hot smoked maple syrup, it is a haunting postcard to Montreal.
The ultimate Montreal treasure here, though, is the pastrami-smoked short rib feast for four, a limited-quantity item preordered at $60 a person for four courses. Presented first on its five-pound, three-bone rack, then sliced in the kitchen onto a platter with schmaltz-griddled house rye, it had the deep ruby hue and peppery black coriander crust of a 10-day cure and serious smoke. It was so profoundly good, the first bites radiated pleasure to my knees. Weeks later, I still close my eyes and savor it (though with spicy mustard, not the maple-sweetened stuff Abe served).
With a flaky potato-short rib knish in one hand and one of Abe's bitter-forward cocktails (i.e. Yesterday, Today and Amaro) spanking my taste buds back to attention, this in itself is reason to go.
But Abe proved its worth in many ways. The uniquely creative menu is bolstered by outgoing, informed service. The excellent drink program was thoughtfully conceived, from well-crafted theme cocktails (the beet-stained and rummy Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition) to its $12 Cruvinet pours of intriguing food-friendly wines, from grenache blanc to bobal and negrette. This is easily one of the year's most distinctive, well-rounded, and ambitious openings.
My biggest hesitation is the spare (and noisy) dining room, though I see the point of its vague design, a collage of polished checkerboard marble floors, white subway tiles, riveted steel accents, and dark-papered walls devoid of pictures or art. Their absence can evoke distant echoes of far-flung places without necessarily pinning them down. And the gastro golem of Abe Fisher is still morphing in these chefs' minds so fast, from its peasant roots to contemporary Philly plates, that resorting here to tchotchke-strewn Lower East Side kitsch wouldn't be right.
But as we sat back and washed the gleam of pastrami from our lips with tiny glasses of medicinally herbal bittersweet amari (Nonino! Cynar! Montenegro!), I spotted that old wool fedora perched precariously on the banquette. After half a century in a closet, Grandpa's hat once again looked like it belonged.