June 3, 2012
Sephardic Jewish cooking— and those who know it should not be surprised —is magical. Truly, it is. It’s an aromatic, exotic, and mesmerizing cuisine. It’s a world steeped in turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and saffron layered with dates, pomegranates, pistachios, and oranges. My Persian grandmother, who I called Bibi, raised me on Sephardic food. She was a Mashhadi Jew who fled to Turkey when it became clear that the Jews were not exactly welcome to stay in Iran. She cooked with every part of her. Her soul was in those pots, her heart, her love, her hopes and dreams for herself, her kids, her grandkids, and heck, even for you if she’d known you. That’s the way she was. Always hoping, always worrying, always cooking, always loving.
After she died, we went through her pots and pans. She had so many and most were still in great shape. But then we found the POT of all pots. It was the size of a college student’s laundry basket: deep and wide and large enough for several loads. We all looked at each other. “She cooked rice in this pot,” my mother said, shaking her head in disbelief, staring down into the abyss that was the mouth of the pot. I had never seen anything like it. “Rice? Was she cooking for an army?” I asked. The pot could have taken up four burners. I pictured my little Bibi, cooking rice in her big pot. Did she use a stepladder? It’s possible. But that’s the way she entertained. None of us claimed the pot. We’d never use it. I was ashamed.
In my memories, Bibi cooked like some sort of wonderful Tasmanian devil, whirling around her kitchen with a Moore perched on her lips, monitoring pots of rice steaming on the stove, Sabzi greens frying in a pan, preserved lemons, pierced to let their sour-sweet hearts flavor pots of Khoresh, the entire apartment growing humid with the smells of basmati rice and dill. And she fed us just as fervently, piling on the rice and the Khoresh like our lives depended on it. She was the simply best cook I have ever known. I know I will never eat that way again. The sad part is, I truly have no ability to cook the food she cooked for me. I have tried, and at times there is a glimmer of recognition between the past and the present, but it’s rather like passing someone you think you know, then only to realize they’re a stranger. It’s a unique form of heartbreak, not only to miss the person, but to miss their cooking too: the smells, the tastes, the sheer quantity of it all—the rice pots brimming with favas and dill, the potato crusts stained from saffron, the bowls of assorted Khoresh, the platters heavy with golden Samoseh; the way the stale, dry air in her building’s long hallway changed when the door to her apartment opened, letting the sweet, far-away world of her cooking rush in, like some wishing potion from a Genie’s bottle.
So I was intrigued to learn that Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero, who co-own two Spanish restaurants in Manhattan, the tapas bar El Quinto Pino and the Basque-inspired Txikito, had opened La Vara in Cobble Hill. This Spanish restaurant is an ode to her Sephardic Jewish heritage and to the medieval Jewish and Islamic cuisines that shaped the food of southern Spain—a legacy that virtually vanished for centuries. Raij isn’t Spanish; she was raised in Minnesota by Argentine-Jewish immigrant parents and the Sephardic legacies woven through La Vara’s dishes serve as a point of connection between her husband’s Basque roots and her Jewish background.
You’ll find La Vara on Brooklyn’s Clinton Street, just next door to the locavore favorite Ted & Honey and a few steps from lovely Cobble Hill Park, where Emily and I often can be found in the sandbox or running through the oval plot of grass that serves as an al fresco playpen for infants and toddlers. La Vara was most recently the ill-fated Breukelen, and prior to that Café On Clinton, a longtime favorite for the neighborhood and a place I used to frequent back in the days when I was a law student. La Vara seems to have erased all ghosts of restaurants past with its simple design: oversized bay windows let in the street’s light; a big welcoming bar hosts neighbors in for the excellent Sangria which is poured alongside stronger Spanish cocktails. The walls are hung with a kind of wild and beautiful Spanish tile fashioned from hammered copper. It’s exotic and quirky. I loved it.
Craig and I stopped in last week for a dinner on Tuesday night. It was a hot night, it felt more like August than May, but the restaurant was iced down nicely. No HVAC issues here, thankfully. The menu’s only trouble is its sheer size. It is divided into little bites, fried things, breads, cold dishes and salads, and hot plates. This means you’re looking at about 32 choices plus a list of about 6-8 specials. I was dizzy with everything I wanted to order. I recommend trying to go with a larger group just so you can try more food. We asked our server for assistance and she guided us through a terrific meal. If you feel like you need help, ask. They don’t steer you wrong.
No matter the size of your party, have the Ajo Blanco with pine nuts: a scallop tartare, diced as fine as a mire-poix, tossed with pine nuts and slabs of sea urchin, garnished tableside with white gazpacho made from Marcona almonds. Its luxurious and unexpected flavors can be filed under “Best Dish of 2012.” I also recommend having some sort of sardine or anchovy if you can. We had the special: fried sardines with favas and artichokes, but there are also oil-cured sardines with seasonal pickles and charred bread ($7) and anchovies with sesame and hazelnuts ($11).
The Berenjena con Miel—fried eggplant with honey—is one of those dishes that may not sound intuitive, but quite simply is. The honey tames the slight bitterness of the eggplant. Also make a promise to have the chefs’ fanciful salad of soaked salt cod, toasted pistachios, pomegranate seeds busting with juice, oranges, briny olives, and chopped egg ($14). To equate the dish to fireworks would be too cliché, right? How ‘bout strobe lights? As soon as you get a lick of salt, your mouth finds sweet, as soon as you find sweet, you discover sour, and then back and forth, around and around. It’s not to be missed. It’s really an unchartered dish, and it speaks to the fearless spirit of the cooking here. This is a kitchen where you’ll find a love of flavor, a passion for texture, and an eye for taking a safe trip and setting it just off course enough to make it thrilling.
The handmade Murcian pasta with goat butter, ground baby goat, and Sumac ($15) is a dish that’s garnered quite a bit of press since the restaurant’s opening about a month ago. Any dish made with goat is sort of on trend at the moment, and I quite liked it. The pasta, which is shaped like cavatelli, has a texture similar to gnocchi, but it’s almost softer and creamier. I like the heat of the ground goat meat against the softness of the pasta and the slight sour punch of the Sumac. It’s a fun dish, though I had just visited a farm and played with a baby goat so that was a little weird, I’m not gonna lie. The lamb breast (18), like the Ajo Blanco, is a showstopper that should also be added to “Best of 2012.” It’s slow-roasted so it’s practically caramelized within its cumin crust and it comes with a sticky date jam, brightened up with lemon that you should feel free to dab generously on top of the lamb (and your date for that matter, too.) For dessert, have the almond torta, a light and airy cake dusted in powdered sugar that wraps the meal up with just the right wink of sweetness.
To be honest, I’m not sure that any of this food is truly Sephardic, but it does channel the flavors of that warmly spiced cuisine into a modern Spanish framework that really works quite well. Whatever you want to call it, I loved it. I thought the service was quite nice, and I enjoyed the moderately priced wine list as much as Craig enjoyed his goblets of Sangria, which he said tasted exactly like Spain and took him back to his travels there after college. He took a few sips and I saw him go somewhere else in his mind. I thought about that, how food can take you to another part of your life. It is a vehicle in some ways. Sometimes, it’s all we have left.
La Vara is located at 268 Clinton Street, (between Congress St & Veranda Pl), (718) 422-0065.