NEW YORK — The rich cultural offerings of New York City means there’s something for almost everyone, from brave souls who explore abandoned subway tunnels to those seeking a cool and kosher respite from the workaday world. Fans of the latter found a second home at The Hester, a hush-hush supper club held in a private residence in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.
The Hester, which began in 2011, served as an informal, off-the-radar meeting place for parties, live music, and delicious sit-down dinners. Hostess and chef Itta Werdiger-Roth created the hangout because she had never quite found the perfect place that combined the pleasures of listening to live music while also enjoying a kosher meal.
The frum atmosphere of The Hester made it a welcoming place for observant and Orthodox Jews (Itta, her husband Matthue, and their two daughters are Hasidic), but its doors were open to anyone who snagged a ticket online before they sold out.
Earlier this summer, I trekked out to a quiet, tree-lined Brooklyn neighborhood for a night at The Hester. Inside a beautiful house (an entire house!), a small group of guests mingled while sipping delicious rosemary watermelon granitas that were shaken and stirred by a bartender. We discussed our work, how we all knew the Roths, and what the general consensus was on the new bike rental stations popping up all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most had been to The Hester before, if not regularly, and some were also friends with the Roths socially.
‘It’s the building of some kind of new Jewish community’
By the time dinner was served, we were amiable and chatty. The free-flowing cocktails and wine didn’t hurt, either. That night, the attendees were a mixed group of married couples, who were mostly seated at intimate tables for two, and single people who found ourselves making small talk and sharing dinner with new friends. “It’s not just about the food and the music and drinks; there’s a little more depth going on because it’s the building of some kind of new Jewish community,” Werdiger-Roth explained to me over coffee in Brooklyn.
Now the Melbourne transplant is working to bring that cozy Hester vibe to a wider audience, along with Sasha Chack, former food and beverage director of 92YTribeca, and investors on Indiegogo.
Mason & Mug, which will also be in Brooklyn, will offer kosher small plates inspired by cuisine from around the world, as well as craft beers, cocktails, and more. It will offer an outdoor space, an open kitchen, bar seating, and table seating, with an eye towards creating the same friendly community vibe of the Hester, which makes crowdfunding with Indiegogo a natural fit. Funds will go to kitchen renovations, legal fees, furniture, supplies, and the like.
The rewards are tempting; for a small investment, you can snag the Kosher Confidential e-cookbook, full of the organic, locally sourced recipes from the Hester, or get matched shtetl-style for a drink with a stranger.
Werdiger-Roth explained via email, “Our theme is taking quick street food-style meals and making them with local ingredients — but also making them our own. We’re not looking to make the most authentic banh mi sandwich; it’s not even possible considering that we are a kosher non-meat restaurant. But we are certainly going to make the most kick ass kosher vegetarian banh mi. That sandwich, for example, is all about the amazing flavor combinations: the creamy, the crunchy, the spicy, the sweet. It comes from a French influence in Vietnam, and now we’re giving it a Brooklyn and kosher tweak.”
Besides being a crackerjack hostess and lively conversationalist, Werdiger-Roth is a self-taught whiz in the kitchen. She honed her cooking skills working as a personal chef for a family in New York City, and later worked at Pardes kosher restaurant in Brooklyn. Her enthusiasm for food is infectious.
‘Our theme is taking quick street food-style meals and making them with local ingredients — and now we’re giving them a Brooklyn and kosher tweak’
“I wouldn’t even say that [Pardes is] good for kosher, I just know that it’s just a good, amazing menu, kosher or not. I grew up thinking my whole life that non-kosher food was better than kosher food. It is crap. I am so sure of it!”
Later she added, laughing, “I can clearly state that I have never had any good non-kosher food. There was a point in my life where I was like very rebellious and didn’t eat kosher food, but that was before I had a refined palate!”
Werdiger-Roth is also blunt about being an occasionally frustrated foodie.
“If you’re kosher, you’re really limited. Sometimes it really sucks. Sometimes I wish I could just, you know, try some mussels or clams because I have no idea what they taste like.
“You know, I feel a little left out sometimes, or I might feel like, even though I’ve never cooked with butter and beef broth and wine, I’ll sometimes kind of wish that I could, but then I’ll come up with something that’s like a rich mushroom stock to replace the beef broth, and I’ve actually made things before that I’ve been so sure that they taste and smell – they smell treyf, for sure, because of the wine and the [mushroom stock] and the butter… and then you eat them and you’re like, the flavors’ explosion, it’s like, ‘Ahhh, I get it.'”