New flavors and fresh ideas raise hopes for a revival of Chicago area’s kosher restaurant scene

Jul 12, 2018

A view of the kosher Hy Life Bistro, which has become a neighborhood landmark in suburban Chicago. (Hy Life Bistro)

CHICAGO (JTA) — This city’s kosher restaurant scene has long lagged behind other metropolises like New York and Los Angeles — but changes might be coming.

A bold forthcoming restaurant, an authentic taqueria and reports that two established neighborhood eateries are looking to change hands are raising hope for kosher diners who want more options and fresh new flavors.

Chef Laura Frankel, who brought fine kosher dining to Chicago when she opened the upscale restaurant Shallots in 1999, is planning to launch a restaurant in the area in early 2019 that incorporates what she sees as the new food trends in the kosher and non-kosher sectors. Frankel is negotiating a lease for a dairy Italian kosher eatery.

“My motto has always been the same thing: There’s no reason that kosher food can’t be more than just kosher,” she said. “It can be modern, local, non-GMO, exciting, vibrant.”

Her new restaurant will feature plant-based foods and offer vegetarian, vegan and dairy Italian fare at what she calls affordable prices.

Frankel takes her inspiration from the Italian principle cucina provera (peasant or seasoning cooking), which to her means “you’re using what is naturally around you.” She said her restaurant will feature seasonal fruits and vegetables while avoiding shortcuts like food coloring and artificial ingredients.

Citing the growing trend for “farm to table,” locally sourced foods in Chicago’s non-kosher sector, Frankel asks why there is no similar move within kosher restaurants.

“I go to kosher restaurants this time of year and there’s nothing local,” she complained. “Instead there’s pineapple from Hawaii. Why aren’t [kosher restaurants] using blueberries from Michigan” and other seasonal produce?

Two established Chicago-area kosher restaurants show the challenge of offering fine kosher dining outside of huge kosher markets like New York and Los Angeles. Slice of Life and Hy Life Bistro — twin dairy and meat restaurants side by side — are the brainchild of Sheldon Kane. Along with distinct menus, the two linked eateries in suburban Skokie have their own waitstaffs and atmosphere. They have become familiar neighborhood landmarks since their founding in 1989. Now that might change.

Despite offerings that mirror current food trends like Asian tacos and barbecue beef sliders, customers often ignore the newer options and opt for older menu standards like homemade gnocchi and ravioli dishes, making change difficult. Some new trends are particularly hard for the kosher restaurants to adopt, Kane explained: Salads, for example, can be prohibitively expensive for a kosher restaurant to create, since kosher supervisors must check the produce meticulously for insects.

Kane said he recently asked his mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, how many bags of lettuce he had checked that day. Twelve, he was told.

“I’m losing money on every salad I serve,” the restaurateur said.

Costs are also rising for kosher ingredients, Kane said.

“I’m paying three times as much for kosher cheese” as non-kosher restaurants, he said, yet market pressures don’t allow the costs to be passed along to consumers. The profit margin is getting squeezed, and Kane doesn’t know how much longer he can hold on to the formula that has kept his twin restaurants afloat for 29 years.

“I’m looking for new young blood to take over,” he said. Another option might be to move to less expensive premises; Kane says he is actively exploring the idea.

Chicago’s kosher restaurant scene could be getting a boost. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One new Chicago-area kosher eatery seems to be tapping into the desire for fresh, nontraditional kosher foods. Tacos Gingi in Skokie is the brainchild of Ricky and Aliza Bielak, chefs who trained and worked in Mexico City before moving to Chicago in 2005.

Ricky Bielak said there needs to be more than just one flavor of kosher food.

“There’s a lack of restaurants in the community,” he said, “and we thought this would be a good addition to the community.”

Tacos Gingi offers the kind of home-cooked Mexican meals the couple grew up with. They began selling takeout meals out of their Skokie home in 2016, and in December 2017 opened their storefront takeout spot, with some seating, under the supervision of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.

The couple believe the restaurant has filled a need.

“I see a lot of people who say ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve been waiting for [kosher] Mexican food for a long time,'” Ricky Bielak said.

Tacos Gingi is reflecting a trend for more simple, vegetable-based and ethnic foods. It’s also in tune with a growing environmental ethos.

“All our packaging is compostable,” Aliza Bielak said. Even the takeout knives, forks and spoons are wood. The restaurant uses no plastic bags.

Another key to Tacos Gingi’s success is its appeal to both kosher and non-kosher consumers.

“You need both,” Aliza said. “What happens when you open a kosher restaurant is you already have your set clientele; you already have your kosher customers.” But to thrive, drawing on a wider base is crucial.

Tacos Gingi is located next to a gas station. That’s a plus, the couple insist.

“The Jewish kosher people know where we are already,” Ricky said. “Others visit the gas station, see a taco restaurant and say ‘let’s see, what’s going on over there. Then when they go in, it smells delicious, it looks good, they see we take care of people.”

Tacos Gingi serves kosher Mexican food in Skokie, Ill. (Tacos Gingi/Facebook)

Many have become regulars, adding an important source of customers beyond dedicated kosher diners.

This recipe for success is replicated 10 miles north in the suburb of Highland Park, where Mizrahi Grill draws a steady stream of diverse clients: The informal Israeli restaurant is drawing kosher-observant Jews, Jews who don’t keep kosher and non-Jewish customers.

Here, too, there is a an emphasis on fresh, natural ingredients in keeping with current dining trends.

“We cook without GMOs,” said co-owner Tomer Mizrahi. “We use lots of fresh ingredients — nothing frozen, only non-compressed meats.” Producing fresh, ethnic, high quality foods enables Mizrahi Grill to appeal to customers beyond the kosher base.

That’s crucial because the number of diners who keep kosher in the greater Chicago area, home to approximately 300,000 Jews, is small: Kane estimates that it’s no more than 20,000. By contrast, 10 times that many households keep kosher in New York City, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.

That being said, Chicago has a number of  kosher choices. The Chicago Rabbinical Council lists 26 restaurants that they oversee throughout the city’s metropolitan area. That includes a nationally celebrated barbecue joint,  a sushi bar and an Argentina-style steak house. That number dropped in June with the closing of Tein Li Chow, a longtime Chinese takeout restaurant.

It’s a relatively small number of kosher establishments compared to the more than 100 in Manhattan alone (according to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, which maintains an online list) and 44 in Los Angeles (via LAJewishGuide.com). The New York suburb of Teaneck, New Jersey, has some 20 kosher spots.

Local restaurant owners believe that Chicago’s conservative ethos also hampers the development of a vibrant dining scene. When she ran a New York outpost of her famed Shallots restaurant in the early 2000s, Frankel said that New York diners seemed to display a “joie de vivre” that their Chicago counterparts sometimes lack.

Frankel, like other restaurant owners, thinks this might change.

“I want to make people feel they are special,” she said, by offering delicious wholesome food. “It’s not enough to stick a mezuzah on your door. You have to stand for something.”

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