Part of being a robust and diverse Jewish community is having an equally robust and diverse slate of kosher restaurants and cafes. The Baltimore Jewish Times thought the best way to get a taste of kosher Baltimore would be to try it out firsthand.
Over the course of two days, the JT editorial staff including myself, reporter Susan Ingram, intern Shoshana Goloskov and managing editor Marc Shapiro traveled from Owings Mills to Fells Point with several stops in between to dine in five kosher Baltimore restaurants.
Although this group came comically riddled with dietary restrictions — I’m a vegan; Marc can’t have dairy, fried food or nuts; Susan avoids caffeine — we still managed to try everything from a cheesy baked ziti and cucumber avocado sushi rolls to Middle Eastern pita platters and a double espresso shot Americano. We explored some of kosher Baltimore’s tried-and-true restaurants as well as some of the region’s newest hot spots.
Below, we offer writeups of our experiences as well as suggested menu items. If you can’t make it through the whole story before dashing to one of these establishments, we understand.
— Connor Graham
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
The first stop on our JT kosher food crawl was the new location of Mama Leah’s in the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, where we were met by affable owner Mark Prince. Even though we surprised him with our visit, Prince, 33, who also owns the well-known Pikesville location of Mama Leah’s, graciously welcomed us to the new, spacious cafe that was busy with JCC camp youngsters, on both sides of the counter.
The cafe opened about three months ago, following renovations to the kitchen to conform to Star-K’s kashrut rules for a meat and dairy kitchen, including the installation of a second fryer and constructing a divider between the meat equipment and the dairy equipment.
Prince said business has been brisk in the casual cafe.
“So far, so good,” he said. “Summer is always nice and good and busy here. Even before the camp started, it was doing well. And we cater a lot of things for the JCC, so that helps.”
Mama Leah’s at the J, like its other location, offers traditional pizza, from personal to extra-large, as well as deep dish, Chicago stuffed crust and specialty pizzas, such as the Israeli, omelette and Greek pizzas. There are also low-carb and gluten-free options. Beyond pizza, there are salads, sandwiches and subs, mostly tuna and fish, as well as Italian dishes, including lasagna, eggplant Parmesan and calzones.
“I would say that our specialty is all of our variety of pizzas,” Prince said with a smile. “But here, no one orders all the variety of pizzas. Kids don’t care, they just want plain slices.”
Prince’s current most popular item? Funnel bites. The bite-sized version of funnel cake, fried dough with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar on top. “And it’s pizza dough, so it’s a little different consistency than funnel cake,” he said.
Shoshana and I, who can eat dairy, ordered Mama Leah’s baked ziti, which was steaming hot, with just the right combination of creamy cheese and sauce tossed with nicely cooked ziti pasta. The rich dish was redolent of oregano and garlic, to which I added a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, making it the perfect afternoon comfort food to follow a hard workout and a refreshing dip in one of the JCC’s pools.
— Susan C. Ingram
700 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Ice cream, pizza and sushi.
An unlikely combo, right? But for more than 15 years, that string of words can only conjure up one thought for Pikesville residents: “Let’s go to Caramel’s!”
On July 18, my JT colleagues and I stopped into Caramel’s for the second stop in our five-part kosher crawl. The booth-style seating and open kitchen layout make it a welcoming setting with small business charm.
Although we didn’t order ice cream or pizza, we sampled the California roll and cucumber avocado roll as well a spinach knish hot from the oven.
As a longterm vegetarian and vegan, I’ve eaten more cucumber avocado rolls than I can count. Caramel’s proved to be in line with the best of them. The rice wasn’t too dry or too sticky, and the vegetables on the inside were cut with care.
Marc enjoyed his California roll, and was completely won over by the side of sweet soy sauce on the plate.
Marc, Shoshana and Susan all dug into the spinach knish, and excitedly sang its praises. Susan, who approvingly noted it was not a very salty knish, recommended dipping it into mustard. As should you, the next time you go.
— Connor Graham
2839 Smith Ave., Baltimore
For the third stop of our kosher crawl, we visited Accents Grill, part of the family of restaurants owned by Lara and Larry Franks, which also include kosher steakhouse Serengeti, Italian-style kosher dairy restaurant Sapori and kosher dairy cafe Cocoaccinos.
Although Accents is a kosher meat establishment, the menu featured a number of fish dishes, as this stop was during the Nine Days.
“We change the menu in accordance with that requirement,” said manager Izzy Bluman, who has worked at Accents since it opened 14 years ago. “We go to a fish- and pasta-based menu for those nine days.”
For the JT crew it was “no meat, no problem.” Susan and I both ordered the Middle Eastern Platter, an appetizer that featured a balsamic-infused eggplant salad, a homemade Israeli salad, creamy hummus and two grilled pitas. Shapiro ordered a similar appetizer that featured hummus and tachina, and Shoshana had a Caesar salad. All four of us agreed that the grilled pitas were top-notch — warm and soft, perfect for dipping, piling or eating by themselves.
While each item on the Middle Eastern Platter excelled on its own, I took several opportunities to layer the hummus, eggplant and Israeli salad together. Both alone and combined, the flavors were robust, distinct and rich.
Everything was delicious even without the main staples of the Accents menu, but Bluman urged us to return to try several other items.
“I see a lot of people getting the sesame studded salmon,” he said. “My favorites are the fish and chips and the tostado bowl.”
He also recommended the flatbreads and the soaring wing burger, a burger topped with the meat of two chicken wings.
“It’s a little messy, but it’s great!”
— Connor Graham
THE DAILY SPECIAL
201 N. Charles St., Baltimore
I was particularly excited to check out The Daily Special, which opened in April and was written up in The Forward as a “Chipotle-style” kosher restaurant. Considering the dietary restrictions of the group, I knew when we walked in on the second day of our kosher food crawl that we had struck culinary gold.
Catering director Ari Seiden and owner Salomon Bemaras greeted us and showed us how it works — there are signature dishes that change seasonally, or you can opt to create your own bowl with umpteen combinations of greens, grains, proteins and toppings, the latter of which change daily.
“We are very strict with the quality control of all the produce we get,” Bemaras told us.
I opted for the Middle Eastern Chicken Bowl (and replaced the pumpkins seeds with broccoli), while Susan got the Korean Glazed Salmon Bowl and Connor got the Vegan Goddess Salad Bowl. We were all happy with our choices, which had flavorful proteins, plentiful vegetables and a variety of textures.
Mexican-born Bemaras, whose ancestry goes back to Turkey and Lithuania, came to Baltimore 18 years ago to raise his kids in an Orthodox community. On the urging of his brother-in-law, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he opened Me Latte so kosher hospital patrons and visitors had a cafe they could go to. While The Daily Special and Mama Leah’s at the JCC were both previously Me Latte locations, he is focusing now on his two restaurants in the city and expanding The Daily Special’s catering operation.
“We realized that the customers, they don’t have time to wait, but they want something healthy, fast and fresh,” Bemaras said. So out of conversations with building owner Blue Ocean, a restaurant consultant, Baltimore’s chef Dan Neuman and Daily Special chef Christina D’Angelo, the concept was born.
About three months after its opening, The Daily Special’s non-kosher customer base has grown from what Bemaras estimates is 20 to 40 percent, and those who eat halal are also coming in to the restaurant.
When asked if Bemaras’ diverse heritage and upbringing comes into the restaurants’ food, he touted his taste buds.
“What I can tell you is I know if it tastes good,” he said. “If it doesn’t taste good, I cannot have it on the menu.”
— Marc Shapiro
VAN GOUGH CAFE’
300 S. Ann St., Baltimore
When Mindy Alezra bought the historic building on the corner of Ann and Gough streets in Fells Point about 10 years ago, she named it Van Gough Café, as a play on the street names. She discovered later that Baltimoreans pronounce Gough (the street) like Goff. But the name stuck.
The last stop on our kosher crawl was a cozy, cool respite from the blazing Baltimore afternoon, although sun lovers can choose outdoor seating and imagine themselves in Van Gough’s “Café Terrace,” one of the Dutch artist’s most familiar works.
A gorgeous wood bar greeted us, displaying Alezra’s offerings, including Goldberg’s Bagels, teas and homemade baked goods along with a kosher dessert selection from BJ’s. The menu offers breakfasts, sandwiches, paninis and wraps, of which Alezra said the bagels and the tuna on Rosendorff’s rye are customer favorites. Specialty vegan fare caught Connor’s eye, including a falafel wrap, vegan turkey quesadilla and a vegan chicken-salad wrap.
Breathe in the heady aroma of coffee and order a hot or frozen concoction. Tea-lovers will appreciate the antique sideboard displaying a dizzying tea selection.
Alezra said the café has always been kosher because she keeps kosher and wanted to eat at her own restaurant.
“I wanted to offer people around here the opportunity, too. When I opened, there was nothing else kosher down here,” she added. “Most of our clientele are locals, but especially in the summer we get a lot of kosher visitors. People from out of the state, out of the country,” who find the cafe on kosher apps.
Alezra’s daughter, Maya, 20, makes baked goods, including rugelach and challah, incredibly, in the cafe’s toaster oven. She’s heading to culinary school in New York. The cafe also offers a bed and breakfast suite on the third floor.
While ensconced in the café’s cozy seating area, Marc and I sampled the tuna on toast. The sandwich had big chunks of white albacore tossed in enough mayo to coat but not overwhelm. The lettuce and tomato were fresh and crisp and the bread — what can you say about toasted Rosendorff’s rye, except it’s the perfect vehicle for a cool, crunchy tuna salad sandwich.
We also indulged in a fetching piece of BJ’s lemon meringue pie, a not-too-sweet pairing of light, smooth meringue atop refreshing lemony filling with lots of tang. A great summer treat to end our 2018 kosher food crawl.
— Susan C. Ingram