The column | Pop-up kosher in Berkeley

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When you think “hot new kosher cuisine,” the Bay Area isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But something’s in the air in Berkeley; you could feel the breeze two weeks ago inside the Westside Bakery Café on Ninth Street, where a group of friends from nearby Congregation Beth Israel were hosting a kosher pop-up dinner, the first in what they hope will be a regular series — maybe even once a month.

The prime instigators behind this madcap scheme are CBI’s Rabbi Yonatan Cohen and his wife, Frayda, and Noah and Hope Alper, he of Noah’s Bagels fame. Frustrated by the paucity of kosher eateries in the area, the two couples decided it was time to hire their own chef, invite their friends and do it themselves.

“Welcome to the first-ever Berkeley kosher pop-up,” Hope enthused, as she welcomed some 65 people, most of whom knew each other and greeted each other across the room with shouts and whoops. The evening had the air of an underground celebration, almost surreptitious, which is pretty much how the frum crowd often feels here in the Bay Area.

There were professors and writers, lawyers and rabbis, Israelis and South Africans practically giddy with joy at the gourmet offerings before them — all of which, unbelievably, they could eat.

The three-course meal — $54 per person, or $45 for vegetarian-only dishes — was prepared by Isaac Bernstein of Epic Bites, a kosher catering business we’ve written about in J. And boy was it good. How about goose and mushroom blintz with a sour cherry sauce for the first course, followed by succulent fall-off-the-bone beef short ribs (pasture-raised, natch) with charred broccolini and smoked (not boiled) potatoes. And for dessert, homage to the great American Sunday brunch: peanut butter mousse with (wait for it) candied beef bacon, strawberries and a dark chocolate brownie.

Bacon! Kosher! It’s been done before, lots of times, but for dessert? With peanut butter and chocolate? Pure genius.

Rabbi Cohen says that Frayda had been mulling over the idea of a kosher pop-up for several years, but couldn’t find the right venue. CBI’s growth from 170 to 240 families in seven years, combined with the expertise of the Alpers and Epic Bites, finally gave them the confidence to go forward. The night came together a couple months ago, when the Cohens and Alpers attended a birthday party at the café catered by Epic Bites. “We said, ‘Let’s do a kosher pop-up,’ ” Hope told me, pointing to the bar stool where the conversation took place. “Noah pushed it through.”

Noah, who sold Noah’s Bagels long ago and then opened the kosher, and ill-fated, Bar Ristorante Raphael in Berkeley, is the business brains behind this new pop-up initiative. But he pooh-poohs the kudos.

“I didn’t have to do anything but put these people together,” he insisted, referring to Bernstein and café owner Janice Chapler, who stood beaming behind the bar as the guests polished off their bacon brownies.

“On the way over here tonight, I thought, something will go wrong. But look!” He gave an expansive wave of the hand.

Along with the food, the evening marked the debut of Covenant’s Mensch, a wallet-friendly offering ($20 retail) from Jeff Morgan’s high-end kosher winery in Napa.

The Covenant news of the evening was twofold. First there was Mensch itself — the red is 100 percent zinfandel and the white is 100 percent Rousanne, both single-vineyard. Unlike Covenant’s other wines, Mensch is mevushal, or “cooked,” but instead of the usual flash pasteurization, which experts blame for kosher wine’s lackluster taste, this wine is “flash détente.”

Mensch was bottled just a week before the dinner, along with Tribe ($32 for a chardonnay, $38 for a three-grape blend called Proprietary Red).

The second bit of Covenant news is that Morgan has moved his winemaking operation to Berkeley. He bought a building on San Pablo Avenue across the street from Urban Adamah. “It was bashert,” he told me. The first bottles will roll off the line in August. 

“I love Napa, but we need more Yiddishkeit in our lives,” he said, referring to himself and his wife, who have joined Beth Israel.

So what’s up next on the pop-up circuit? According to Noah Alper, Chinese food is in the wind.

Nothing un-Jewish about that.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].