Loveski, the "Jew-ish" deli in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, is bustling. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Loveski, the "Jew-ish" deli in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, is bustling. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Loveski deli creates new Jewish traditions with Southeast Asian flavors

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Chef Christopher Kostow is known for being the youngest chef to ever achieve three Michelin stars, which he did for The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. His other accolades in the culinary world are too numerous to mention. Is it possible he will next become known for pioneering a matzah ball soup with fish sauce, lemongrass and Thai chilies?

“Lemongrass and fish sauce in matzah ball soup? Miso vegetable spread on a bagel? Kimchi and gochujang dressing on a Reuben instead of sauerkraut and Russian dressing? What?”

I can hear the traditionalists in my head like a Greek chorus.

Chef Christopher Kostow on the Loveski patio in Napa. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Chef Christopher Kostow on the Loveski patio in Napa. (Photo/Alix Wall)

I had come to Napa to try Loveski, the new, self-proclaimed “Jew-ish” deli. Before I sat down, I was ready to order whitefish salad on a bagel. But when the chef told me that he serves his on the softest, freshly baked white bread with a smattering of fresh herbs, I went with it. And when I took a bite, I got a bit of heat from rings of fresh Thai green chilies and a surprising herbaceousness, with a generous serving of dill and some Thai basil. This was like no whitefish salad I’d ever had. But it was so delicious, I didn’t care one bit.

The same can be said about the other items I tried. The kimchi and gochujang dressing (a Korean fermented condiment that’s sweet, spicy and savory all at once) made for such a delicious Reuben, it tasted both completely new and close enough to the original that I’m still thinking about it a week later.

Kostow told me that ultimately, he just wants everything to be delicious, and in that, I believe he’s succeeded.

“I’m not a real fine-dining guy. I know that sounds weird,” he said. “My car is dirty. I like walking around and giving people a pickle.”

Loveski opened at the end of March in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, an indoor marketplace not unlike the Ferry Building, with specialty food shops and eateries.

It’s not every day that a chef who has earned three Michelin stars opens a fast-casual Jewish deli, so it received a lot of buzz. Kostow is the chef at two other restaurants in St. Helena, Charter Oak and The Restaurant at Meadowood, which is being rebuilt after burning down in the Glass Fire of September 2020.

Loveski comes from his family’s pre-Ellis Island last name, Koslovski. The restaurant is “bringing back this lost part of the name [and] traditions associated with the Jewish diaspora,” according to its website.

The Reuben tasted both completely new and close enough to the original that I’m still thinking about it a week later.

Kostow, 45, grew up in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb so Jewish that it wasn’t until he was 12 or 13 that he realized the whole world wasn’t Jewish, he said. Though his household wasn’t very observant, he did have a bar mitzvah. He began cooking at age 14 at a music festival, and before he was 30 he had earned the first of his Michelin stars.

When approached in 2020 by the owner of Oxbow about a corner spot that was becoming available, the deli idea came to mind. But it wasn’t the first time Kowtow had this idea. Back in 2009, when he was named a best new chef by Food & Wine, he told the magazine that his dream project was opening a California version of Katz’s Deli.

He has now realized that long ago dream. It wasn’t such a stretch because “Jewish food has a lot of commonalities with the food we’ve done at our other restaurants,” he said.

 

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“There’s a lot of food preservation and fermentation, and I began thinking about how we can apply things from the farm to this concept,” Kostow said. Much of the produce he uses is grown on his nearby farm.

As for describing his venture as “Jew-ish,” Kostow was clear that he was avoiding the air of nostalgia that many delis rely on.

“It was important to me that we’re not doing this faux reference point to New York or the shtetl that I think a lot of delis do. That felt disingenuous to us,” he said. “We wanted to make it relevant to us. We wanted this to be a bigger tent, to include people who have no concept of what Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant or Russ & Daughters is. We wanted to make it as inclusive as possible.”

His wife, Martina, is of Thai descent and is a partner in the business, which hints at why the Jewish food includes hallmarks of Asian cuisine. If you’re shaking your head at the idea of Southeast Asian ingredients in his “Den’s Way” matzah ball soup — Den is Kostow’s mother-in-law — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; I was already of the belief that a dash of fish sauce makes so many things better, and Loveski’s soup affirmed that.

Kostow said his sandwiches are purposely not gigantic (complaints from his father notwithstanding), which allows customers to eat them more frequently than they might a typical oversize deli sandwich. And in line with current food trends, there are plenty of gluten-free options in the form of salads, and vegan options, too.

All of the bread for Loveski, including the rye for Reubens, is baked at Charter Oak. Kostow has entered the Bay Area’s burgeoning bagel scene, making bagel dough at Charter Oak and baking them on the spot at Loveski.

His bagels are more Montreal style, boiled in water with a bit of honey, and are toasted whole before being served.

“Bagels are hard to do properly,” he said, but he’s getting close to being 100 percent happy with the results. “We wanted something that felt artisanal and California, with a good crust and crackle.”

Loveski is in Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., #20, Napa.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."