It’s 5 p.m., and chefs Mark Hennessey and Jose Meirelles are preparing a four-course meal in the kitchen of Congregation Beth Tefillah for a dinner that begins at 7.
The two men are best known for the world-class French brasserie Le Marais in the heart of Times Square in New York. The restaurant opened 20 years ago, and what began as a risk has become the premier spot for kosher steaks.
The secret to the succulent cuts of beef is an old-school butcher by the name of Dominique, plus aging. But there’s another element that gives these chefs an edge: They’re not Jewish.
Hennessey believes that a gentile palate is an advantage in a kosher kitchen.
“We both come from nonkosher businesses, and we both understand what it is to operate nonkosher. We don’t operate with the restrictions a Jewish person would operate with because we speak a different language,” Hennessey said. “We understand all these foods and all these flavors that those guys don’t understand. We’ve eaten everything. We’ve eaten around the world. We’ve eaten at every restaurant in New York City, and we know what’s what. I think if you’ve been kosher your whole life, you have a very limited palate.”
The idea behind the menu at Le Marais is a French brasserie that just happens to be kosher. The steaks are the main draw, said Meirelles, the owner of Le Marais, but he emphasized that it is a French restaurant. The menu at Le Marais includes such traditional French fare as beef bourguignon, coq au vin cooked in a red wine sauce, duck confit, pates and rillettes.
When Meirelles opened the restaurant with urging from business partners, he said he started by learning kashrut.
“I had to adapt the recipes for the kosher world. I had a rabbi come in, and he knew a lot about cooking, and he showed us,” Meirelles said. “The rest was ‘learn as you go’ because the cooking isn’t Jewish; the cooking is French.”
The biggest change for Meirelles was using margarine instead of butter for his sauces. A French sauce or roux is rich with a creamy consistency because of the butter, but Meirelles adapted to take kosher cuisine to another level. He combines lemon, egg and margarine to get the creamy texture with the mildly piquant taste. Photos by Patrice Worthy
“Kosher has nothing to do with cooking. It’s about what you can and cannot do,” Meirelles said. “You just use kosher ingredients.”
The four-course dinner at Beth Tefillah on Monday, Oct. 30, was inspired by Thanksgiving and autumn. It included a 108 Degree Salmon with thyme, salt and pepper.
The salmon was served medium-rare over a bed of pickled cucumbers, radishes, peppers and parsley. The poached salmon was cooked using a technique called sous vide, in which it was placed in a 108-degree bath until done.
While poached salmon usually is hard and flaky, Hennessey said, sous vide changes the texture of the fish.
“Poached salmon should be soft, and it’s a fatty fish by nature. By cooking it at a very low temperature with the sous vide process, it enables us to have this perfect salmon,” Hennessey said.
The second course was “porchetta.” It’s actually veal pounded out and rolled up with garlic and rosemary. It’s then slow-cooked, salted and served thinly sliced with mustard, a crouton from a French baguette and pickled vegetables.
The porchetta is cooked for 48 hours. Le Marais cooks it carefully because it’s “difficult to do kosher,” and a lot of the meats don’t have the same fat content as pork.
It was one of the dishes that gave the Beth Tefillah diners a small taste of what they do at Le Marais, Hennessey said.
The third course, beef tournedos, was the star of the evening. The beef was placed in a sous vide bath with salt and pepper and served with a Béarnaise sauce. The filet was served medium-rare with roasted parsnips and carrots.
“We had to do a beef dish,” Hennessey said. “It’s a nice, 28-day-aged, 6-ounce tournedo beef.”
A few guests sent the steak back to be cooked medium-well (a residual effect of the Jewish palate), and others complained about the lack of a starch like potatoes (an effect of the Southern palate), but for the most part everyone enjoyed the steak.
The dessert was gingerbread molasses cake served with a dulce de leche cream topping with a sweet apple glaze on the sauce.
The meal was paired with red and white wines and live music.
Sari and David Jacoboff, who recently moved to Atlanta from Manhattan, attended the dinner because Le Marais is their favorite restaurant in New York. They enjoyed the dinner but said there’s nothing like home.
“We celebrated many occasions there,” David said. “The dinner was excellent. We liked the steak the best, but, to be honest, we like Manhattan better.”