'I'm sorry for the delay," says manager Eilon Gigi with one of his disarmingly charming Israeli shrugs. "The party at your table is still 'benching.' "
I've heard a lot of excuses over the years about tables that lingered while paying. But this was the first time I've ever had to wait to be seated while the people before us were still praying. Benching is the Yi-nglish phrase for Birkat Hamazon, the after-meal grace recited by observant Jews. And as I observed, while my stomach growled with anticipation of the pastrami-spiced aromas wafting from the open kitchen at Citron and Rose, it can also be quite lengthy.
"We're going to have to build that into our reservation system," noted Steven Cook, who with his Zahav partner, Michael Solomonov, has been tasked with creating what many have viewed as impossible: a great glatt kosher restaurant.
And from the moment I finally settled onto our leather banquette behind a sky-blue window pane in the dining room, schmeared a warm rye-bread roll with onion-infused schmaltz, and then devoured an ethereally smoky slice of garlicky house salami, it was clear they'd succeeded.
With a mashgiach (supervisor) from the Vaad on-site doubling as a sous chef to ensure the restaurant meets the stringent standards of rabbinical authorities, the room has been joyously abuzz with diners one doesn't ordinarily see in most Philly restaurants. Tallit-fringed Orthodox Jews wearing kippot and black hats have journeyed here - not just from Lower Merion, but from Brooklyn, Lakewood, N.J., and even Los Angeles. No doubt they've been beckoned by the deeply aged, wood-grilled savor of Citron's massive rib-eye, or the possibility of a knish that is not heavier than lead.
It's a scene David Magerman - the computer scientist, local philanthropist, and formal owner - surely envisioned in his plan to make Philadelphia a tastier place for observant Jews.
But what makes Citron and Rose so thrilling is the genuine potential for it to draw more diverse crowds from across the region, including those who follow the inspired Solomonov-Cook duo faithfully, whether it's for the hummus heaven of Zahav, the Texas barbecue of Percy Street, or the high-concept fried chicken dusted with shabazzi powder at Federal Donuts.
With restrictions that prevent the mixing of meat and dairy, command the use of only kosher ingredients, and prohibit business during the Sabbath - especially inconvenient as Friday and Saturday nights account for 40 percent of Zahav's revenue - this is no small task.
But the steady flow of enthusiastic crowds during its five open nights (plus a healthy catering program) give the venture a chance at sustainability. The surprisingly deep bar of whiskey and cleverly themed cocktails (like the beet-sugared Cosmonaut and Bulleit rye-infused Frisco Kid) help compensate for the boiled mevushal kosher wine. And with a longtime Zahav hand at the stoves in Elkins Park-born Yehuda Sichel, the kitchen is already showing some brilliant flashes. But there have also been some growing pains and inconsistencies, although with a little more tweaking, Citron and Rose could possibly rise to three bells by year's end.
Inspired more by the Ashkenazi foods of Eastern European Jews (plus a memorable smoked-meat journey to Montreal), the menu is in many ways a throwback to Cook's early menus at Marigold before the arrival of Solomonov's Sephardic flavors.
I've never tasted such a flaky knish as this one, poppy-speckled and stuffed with smoked mushrooms and earthy kasha over orange-carrot mustard. Salad Lyonnaise gets a convincing twist with nuggets of smoked duck breast instead of the usual bacon, tangling in frisee greens with warm potato cubes sauteed in hot duck fat.
The garlicky pepper-and-paprika punch of pastrami spice, a blend that already works wonders on the all-spice-cured smoked short rib (a charcuterie offered as a complimentary hors d'oeuvre), takes an intriguing new twist with the beautiful salmon crudo. The addition of smoked ground walnuts adds dimension to the sashimi-thick slice of silky raw fish rolled in the spice crust. The subtle spice of beets marinated in horseradish vinegar brings the dish full circle with hints at some familiar flavors - gefilte fish? smoky Nova lox? - while remaining wholly original.
Some parts of the menu, though, remain a work in progress. I loved the notion of a veal kreplach dumpling served at the center of a bowl of celery root soup. But the revised take at a following meal, with a veal-stuffed cabbage instead of kreplach, was a step backwards, the leafy package too awkward to eat in soup with a spoon.
The superbly fresh beef tartare takes on novel personality with bits of pickled green tomatoes mixed in for sparks of tartness, and fried croquettes of ground meat stuffed with bone marrow for extra indulgence on the side.
But the menu's main event - and no doubt its prime draw as a meat-friendly glatt kosher destination - is the $79 mega-rib-eye for two. This two-pound hunk of bone-in pastured steer from Grow & Behold, a Brooklyn kosher butcher, is an object of pure grill-lust, and among the best cuts of beef I've eaten anywhere. That's largely because Citron and Rose dry-ages the whole racks in-house for 35 days, an almost unheard-of period locally. It's long enough for up to 20 percent loss to shrinkage and trim, but it also concentrates the flavor to a profound and lasting intensity. The meat is amped by a tallow rub with garlic and shallots, then the haunting savor of that wood-fired grill, and I could taste the afterglow of mine for hours after the meal was over.
The fish dishes, however, were far less successful. The escabeche of mackerel, though prettily shingled across the plate like dominoes with gaufrette potatoes, lacked the juiciness of its pickled fish inspiration. The crispy-skinned salmon over eggplant puree was extremely overcooked. The lightly seared tuna over an herbed green smoked tuna mayonnaise sauce was too austere, and the oddly rustic garnish of gnocchi-like rye huluska was intriguing but out of place. The schnitzel-breaded fish was a bit of a bore.
Now, pan-fry a roulade of tenderly braised veal breast in schnitzel breading with some gherkin marmalade on top, as Sichel did at my second meal, and that's just what I'm hoping for - the spirit of Jewish soul food artfully reimagined. Even more astonishing was the sublimely flavorful lamb shank braised in coffee and Manischewitz wine served over flageolet beans with a side of coffee-steeped egg and a challah-veal kishke stuffing.
This was Citron and Rose's take on sholet (or cholent), the traditional slow-cooker stew eaten for Shabbat lunch. But not only did it give a new usefulness to much-maligned Manischewitz; it almost made a far less observant Jew (or even a non-Jew!) want to observe the Sabbath one day just for an excuse to make it. Citron and Rose still has room to grow. But it's aready an inspiration.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Red Owl Tavern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.