A chef who can take a restriction and turn it into an asset is a great chef indeed. In recent years, some of the most interesting food I've had has come from chefs who limit themselves in some way: to raw food, to meat-free food, to the food of one farm, to food they've grown themselves. Such limitations can midwife great creativity. Anyone can cook a piece of salmon and throw it on a plate with spinach and mashed potatoes. A great vegan cheesecake? That's harder.
Alex Reznik, a Top Chef alum and former chef of La Seine and FigOly, has just opened a restaurant with a number of constraints. According to Reznik, Ditmas Kitchen & Cocktails is first and foremost an ode to New York — the restaurant is named for the avenue where the chef grew up in Brooklyn. It's also kosher, joining a growing number of ambitious kosher restaurants that are popping up nationally.
A kosher menu puts many things off limits. Of course there is no pork or shellfish. Ditmas also is dairy-free, negating the need for the requisite separate kitchens and sets of equipment to handle meat and dairy. The restaurant is billing itself as something of a chophouse, with a whole section of the menu dedicated to steak, but the beef is only from the front of the animal, as kosher law dictates (it's somewhat more complex than that, but in America this is how people keep kosher). A rabbi is on premises to oversee things.
The restaurant's kosher status has not been a big part of its marketing push. In fact, you might never realize its origins if you hadn't sought it out for that very reason.
The local Jewish community is certainly aware (and appreciative). Ditmas is in the heart of Pico-Robertson, a neighborhood with such a strong Orthodox presence that mass chicken slaughters in preparation for Yom Kippur have only recently generated controversy. There are something like a dozen kosher butchers in the immediate area, and many restaurants, including Ditmas, are closed on Friday night for the Sabbath.
While Pico-Robertson has begun to see destination restaurants (Picca, Sotto) in recent years, those have been disconnected from its core community. Ditmas clearly hopes to bridge that gap. It's not the first to do so — its freestanding building, which looks kind of like a lodge/Denny's from the outside, was previously a kosher "steakhouse fusion lounge" — but Ditmas may be the most successful to date. Thus far, it's been packed.
Any whiff of Denny's disappears once you walk through the doors. It's a huge, attractive restaurant, mainly outfitted in reclaimed wood, stone and brick. To the right, white tablecloths denote a fancier vision, while to the left a bar area with a long, communal table offers a more casual vibe. At the back of the restaurant, Reznik expedites at the pass of a bustling, open kitchen. Through that window come dishes with ingredients like Fresno powder and pea shoots, forbidden black rice and horseradish snow. There's a lot of ambition on this menu.
And yet ... it's hard to tell exactly what's going wrong amidst all this activity and excitement, but something is definitely off. Much of the staff has an air of high anxiety, a tremor of panic that belies their brave attempts at hospitality. From the hostesses to the bartenders to the waiters, there is an efficiency and welcoming spirit, but with a thrum of fear just below the surface. It's a new restaurant (Ditmas opened on Christmas Day), and a very busy restaurant, but that doesn't quite explain the uneasy tone.
The disconnect becomes more clear when all those interesting ingredients start to arrive on the plate in front of you. There's simply no way Reznik is aiming for the food that's being delivered. I can't believe he means for the steak tartare to be too salty to eat, in spite of the fancy horseradish snow. If he's going to the trouble of making his own Kennebec fries, topping them with sage and togarashi, there's no way his intent is for them to be leaden with oil, limp and crisp-less. It's unthinkable that he willingly sent out an utterly flat chocolate souffle, about an inch and a half of hot cake in the bottom of its ramekin, or a caramel "pudding" that was nothing but a thick, cold liquid, the approximate consistency of a milkshake but with all the slimy viscosity of a bodily fluid I'll refrain from naming. Those desserts were neither souffle nor pudding. A plate of chocolate chip cookies seemed like a safer bet, but they resembled cardboard more than dessert.
There are glimmers of the food Reznik is trying to serve. On the bar menu, a corned beef tongue dish, served on a bagel with a fried hen egg, satisfied in a simple way, like a straightforward but delicious breakfast sandwich. Whitefish rillettes are an incredibly fun idea, and would be fantastic if they weren't quite so salty and were perhaps a touch more acidic. Tuna carpaccio comes as a round of silken fish, topped with daubs of avocado and the sweet tang of finger limes. It's a dish with enough delicacy and nuance to showcase the potential of this chef.
But mainly the food left me scratching my head, wondering what went askew. At what point did the short rib with butternut squash polenta begin to taste like concentrated bouillon, like a sponge for Maggi seasoning sauce? If you're going to use chanterelles as the accompaniment to roast chicken, why shred them into a salty duxelles sauce, thereby erasing any of their subtler pleasures?
Even the steaks, which should be Ditmas' crowning glory, lacked any personality at all — no tang, no char, no character of any sort. For the price, they were some of the most disappointing steaks I've ever encountered.
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Reznik has put together a short wine list that successfully showcases some of the huge leaps in quality that kosher wine has taken in recent years. The cocktails aren't bad, either, or they wouldn't be if they were made properly. Basic bar technique, like straining shaken drinks so they're not full of ice chips, often fall by the wayside.
It's an odd feeling, wanting to love a restaurant, returning over and over, searching for the redeeming dish, the redemptive drink, the edible dessert. Having lived in and loved Brooklyn, the idea of a restaurant that paid homage to that great borough was enough to get me excited. And Pico-Robertson is clearly thrilled to see a restaurant this good-looking catering to its beliefs.
But there are problems here that have nothing to do with what religious observance won't allow. And there's not much of Brooklyn here — not much of anything I understand at all, actually. Reznik is aiming very high with Ditmas Kitchen & Cocktails. For now, at least, he's missing by quite a wide berth.
DITMAS KITCHEN & COCKTAILS | One star | 8731 W. Pico Blvd., Pico-Robertson | (310) 271-9300 | ditmasla.com | Mon.-Thurs., 6-11 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Entrees, $23-$42 | Full bar | Valet parking