Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sender My Regards

24 January 2010
Tel Aviv

I would have called this blog "Return to Sender" but a Jerusalem Post reviewer beat me to it. In describing our favorite ethnic restaurants, I have often used the line that the food is like your Grandmother's cooking, if your Grandmother came from the food's country of origin. Sender is the only restaurant we've found where the cooking is like my Grandmother's.

Chopped liver is the haute cuisine of peasant/workers' food. The not-so-secret secret to perfect chopped liver is that it has to be - wait for it - chopped. A food processor, blender or other evil mechanical device has never touched Sender's chopped liver, just as such vile 20th century automatons never touched my Litvak Grandmother's chopped liver. Sender's current chef/owner, Zami Schreiber, chops with a knife. My Grandmother (also my Mother and my Aunts) used a curved chopping blade and a wooden bowl.

The ingredients are simple enough - sauteed liver and onions, hard boiled eggs, raw onion, and enough fat and salt to put you on intimate terms with a good cardiologist. Zami chops his mixture to just the right consistency and flavor. The dish is both smooth comfort food and has identifiable chunks of liver, egg and onion. It's best eaten cold though the truly impatient have been known to eat it warm. (I couldn't be the only kid who used his fingers to scrape the remnants of the mixture off the chopping blade and, while sucking warm chopped liver off his fingers, listened yet again to his Mother explain about how hard it is to reattach a severed digit.)

Sender's chopped liver is made as well as chopped liver can be made. You might, with years of practice, be able to replicate this dish but you can't get it better than perfect. I should know. I was raised on this stuff. I don't have 4 stents, an angioplasty and a pacemaker for nothing.

Sender has been in business since 1948. Zami, the son of the original owner's partner, grew up in the kitchen where he learned how to cook like my Grandmothers. Zami's wife (and childhood sweetheart), Yael, runs the dining room and can easily translate the Hebrew menu into what some of you may think is English but are actually the Yiddish names for the various delicacies -- kreplach (fried with onions or boiled in the soup), schnitzel, kishke (intestine stuffed with mystery breading), kneadlach (OK, it's matzoh balls but that somehow doesn't have the same artery clogging ring - and, for the Gentiles out there, it's pronounced with the "k" as a separate syllable from the "nead" - as in knish)), gefilte (stuffed) fish and compote (which may be a French word but sounds Yiddish to me).

We gorged ourselves on appetizers of chopped liver (have i mentioned the chopped liver?), kreplach with onions fried to be crispy but not overly hard or greasy (my Litvak Grandmother's were great eaten cold the next day, Zami's are wonderful time machines back to Brooklyn), kishke (not the U.S. caterers' kishke that turns your skin orange but a kishke whose stuffing reminded us of helzel (stuffed chicken necks - not on Sender's menu but a real treat at my English/Russian Grandmother's apartment)) and chicken soup with kneadlach, kreplach and thin noodles. The chicken soup was tasty but, unlike the rest of the meal, did not live up to that of our Grandmothers. This may, however, be because the chopped liver (I think I've mentioned the chopped liver) raised the bar so high.

And then there was the gefilte fish. Sender's fish is stuffed back into the skin and then sliced. It tasted like Liz' gefilte fish back in the day when she would, once a year for Pesach, expend the enormous amount of time and energy it took to replicate her Grandmother's recipe. Liz' gefilte fish is the best I ever had. Zami's is right up there with her's. (Liz made a point of telling Yael and then telling the chef to his face.) Yael says he makes it fresh a couple of times a week so you don't have to wait until Pesach.

While moaning in pleasure over the appetizers (I mentioned the chopped liver, didn't I?), we noticed another diner having a dish of thin sliced meat in gravy with a side of kasha (buckwheat groats - the Ashkenzi equivalent of couscous or grits). Liz figured out that the meat was tongue. We had intended to fill what little room we had left in our stomachs with goulash but the sight of the tongue made us change course. I've been told that eating tongue, (or other organ meats like liver or kidney), is a matter of dealing with the texture. For anyone reading this who doesn't like organ meat - good, that means more for me. Sender's tongue can be cut with your fork and melts in your mouth.

We washed our feast down with seltzer (in Israel it's soda - with the accent on the a). Liz' was flavored with a classic red syrup called petal which is raspberry; mine was straight up. We could not cram in the fruit compote this trip. We'll go back for the goulash and compote another time.

I think I've mentioned the beach. Add Sender's chopped liver to the list of reasons why I spend winters here.


Lynn said...

David, it all sounds yummy. I still make helzel using turkey necks. My Bubby would approve. The only food item missing from the menu you describe is mashed potatoes with shmultz and gribbenes. Another artery clogging delicasy of years gone by. We may come and feast at Sender's with you and Liz. Take care, Lynn Jacobs

David Stolow said...

Lynn -

You cook with gribenes? I'm coming over when I get back in country. Sender's kneadles are the tightly packed variety. None of that fluffy stuff here. My Grandmother would put the gribenes in the middle of a kneadle about the size of your fist and, after boiling, would bake it. OMG!