BUENOS AIRES — An intricate Star of David tattoo on Tomas Kalika’s forearm emblematizes the Argentine chef’s approach to cuisine at his acclaimed Buenos Aires restaurant, Mishiguene – elaborate and unabashedly, if unconventionally, Jewish.
The food, the décor, the ambiance all scream yiddishkeit, from the mezuzah on the door to the latkes, pastrami and borscht on the menu to the quintessentially klezmer clarinet tunes. The restaurant’s name is Yiddish for crazy, and it’s part of a broader trend of Jewish — but not strictly kosher — eateries in Buenos Aires, though it stands apart in its sophistication.
Kalika, 36, a Buenos Aires native and descendant of Russian and Polish immigrants, never went to culinary school. He moved to Israel as a teen and, after a stint on a kibbutz, picked up the craft in Jerusalem kitchens, working his way up from the bottom.
Though he had no experience and little English or Hebrew, Kalika, then 17, knew he wanted to be a chef. So he turned up one morning at Oceanos, the Jerusalem restaurant of Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani. Kalika recounted that he was drawn to Oceanos because Shani was one of the first to start forging an Israeli culinary identity.
“I went to the restaurant and asked for Eyal Shani, they told me Eyal is in a meeting in Tel Aviv. I said I wanted to wait,” Kalika remembered. “I waited for almost 10, 11 hours. It was a long day.”
Shani turned up around 9 p.m. and explained he had a list of prospective employees as long as his arm. But Kalika’s persistence paid off.
“He gave me a job as a dishwasher,” he said. Over time he learned the ropes in the Oceanos kitchen, clambering his way up the ranks as a cook in the Hilton Jerusalem (now the David Citadel) and the Eldan hotel chain.
For Kalika, cooking is not merely a passion but “a way of life” that began, he recalled over coffee in the chic Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano, with his mother’s handwritten recipes.
“My mom used to have a book with the recipes that our family used for lunch and dinner,” he said. “Two hundred pages of recipes and instructions.”
He’d ditch school regularly as a teenager; his mother, frustrated, insisted he at least cook dinner for the family while his parents worked.
“Meatballs, schnitzel, gefilte fish, kreplach, kugel, hamin, borscht, varenikes, whatever we used to eat as a Jewish family and as an Argentinian family.”
He eventually moved back to Buenos Aires in 2005 after landing a job as a chef at a new hotel near the Rio de la Plata River. A few years later he opened a restaurant of his own, The Food Factory. It was like “putting on the table all your experience, all your dreams, all your passion,” he said.
“It was crap,” he reflected with a chuckle. “I lost all my money. I didn’t have any sense about the finances.”
Business failing, spirits crushed, an entrepreneurial friend of a friend — Javier Ickowicz — bought him out. A year later he proposed a joint venture as manager, with Kalika running the kitchen.
“‘We are going to open a Jewish restaurant,’” Kalika recalled Ickowicz telling him.
“Come on. What do you want to do, gefilte fish?” Kalika replied. “No one can cook better than one’s bubbie, it’s impossible.” It was a crazy idea, he thought.
They conceived of taking traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi recipes and reinventing them with new techniques, in the same vein as cutting-edge Spanish and French cuisines. The ambiance would be “like a Jewish wedding, just without the bride and groom,” Kalika said.
So in 2014, Mishiguene opened its doors.
The menu features traditional Ashkenazi Jewish delicacies, North African and Middle Eastern recipes and modern Israeli elements, all executed with modern technique. The walls are adorned with photos of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the vibrant Jewish immigrant past of New York and Buenos Aires, all paying homage to the traditions and people that inspired the food.
The Eastern European dishes defy the notion that Ashkenazi food must be bland: gefilte fish wrapped in strips of blanched carrot with a dab of horseradish, topped with a crispy miniature sardine and served with chicken broth to drizzle over the assemblage; borscht with kreplach; herring in a cream potato salad. Pastrami is done in a uniquely Argentine fashion, on a wood-burning parrilla grill. Varenikes, large ravioli-like pasta stuffed with potato, come heaped on caramelized onions cooked in schmaltz (chicken fat) and garnished with gribenes – chicken skin cracklings.
“Bubbie’s are better. These are our version. With affection, respect and tradition,” the menu reads.
But Kalika truly shines with its Sephardi cuisine. Ever since I tried rotisserie quail in Istanbul years ago, cravings for the little birds have haunted me. But Mishiguene’s succulent roasted quails drizzled with labaneh, ensconced atop couscous as aromatic as a spice shop at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda and accompanied by braised carrots and onions, ousted the memory of that restaurant on the Golden Horn.
“Eat them with your hands,” Kalika ordered.
The Jerusalem mixed grill – meorav yerushalmi — he said, was his favorite. A waiter said the same. The chicken hearts and livers were accompanied by grilled sweetbreads, an Argentine favorite, and served atop creamy hummus and properly spicy chili puree – a rarity in Buenos Aires. The menu even includes an homage to Kalika’s one-time mentor, Eyal Shani: the Israeli chef’s signature whole head of cauliflower blanched in milk and roasted. The slight char on the exterior perfectly complements the creamy richness of the roast cauliflower. It’s then served with sides of tahini, matbucha and labaneh.
“It’s not only about the food, it’s about the name, it’s about the decoration, the atmosphere, it’s about the music – it must be a whole experience,” he said.
Mishiguene not only conjures up memories of Ashkenazi grandmothers’ cooking, but also gets to the heart of what defines being Jewish. Can a food be called Jewish if it doesn’t adhere to the rules of kashrut? Is a soul still Jewish if it abandons religious practice?
The answer for Mishiguene, at least, is unwaveringly yes. There may be pastrami-flavored ice cream served as dessert blithely ignoring the taboo on mixing meat and milk, but the soul of the food is unmistakably Jewish.
“The most difficult thing was the name,” Kalika said. Just before opening, when everything was ready, he proposed Mangal – Hebrew for a grill. A friend dissuaded him, urging him to name the place Mishiguene.
“I’m known among my friends as the mishiguene one,” he said. The name stuck.