Restaurateur Alan Morstein has a secret weapon in his gastronomic arsenal: his mother Saundra’s long-cherished recipes.
Native Baltimorean Morstein and his wife, Sande, have owned Regi’s American Bistro for the past 15 years of its four-decade existence.
“My actual role is part-time host, part-time bartender, part-time very good cook … part-time just about everything else,” Morstein joked. “I spend a lot of time greeting guests and a lot of time in the kitchen.”
Morstein said that his multitalented wife helps out as a hostess and is “very involved in the wine list. She has a good wine palate and has learned a lot, [having gone to] many vineyards in both California and Italy.”
The Morsteins’ two children, Ryan and Sheri, worked at the Federal Hill establishment in their youth but have moved onto other cities, other vocations and other lives.
“They left to pursue their careers,” Morstein said about his children who now live in New Jersey and have become involved in the sale of medical equipment. “I hated to see them leave.”
Something of a family affair then, it’s no wonder that one thing that hasn’t left Regi’s is the many delightful menu items that have been inspired by Morstein’s loving mother.
“My mother was a worker,” Morstein said of the retired 96-year-old Saundra, who is a resident of the Brookdale Pikesville assisted living community.
“She was in the entertainment industry, but she also had a few really dynamic recipes that I’ve cloned,” Morstein added.
Though he said today he’s not particularly observant, Morstein was raised Orthodox and graduated from Beth Tfiloh’s elementary school before finding himself in the creative culinary realm. This exploration at one point did include running his own kosher deli, the first such deli, he claimed, to operate in Ocean City, Md.
Morstein remains as ever enraptured by his mother’s Jewish specialties that he serves at Regi’s.
Saundra’s chicken soup stock, for example, is best described by Morstein as “liquid gold.”
Another favorite of Saundra’s that has made its way into Regi’s repertoire is her mouthwatering brisket, which was featured as part of the bistro’s Christmas dinner this past weekend.
“So many Jewish people come out for Christmas dinner,” Morstein said. “They get tired of Chinese.”
The foundation of Morstein’s brisket is its freshness, which combines with a unique preparation including chili sauce, white vinegar, bay leaves, fresh cracked pepper, sea salt, garlic cloves and for a truly exotic twist, Coca-Cola.
“It’s basically a sweet-and-sour brisket,” Morstein said. “We do that with potato pancakes, which I also learned from [my mom], topped with applesauce.”
Morstein was clearly interested in the restaurant industry at an early age, having worked as a dining room manager at the Pimlico Hotel while attending Baltimore Junior College.
He really caught the bug while he was growing up, creating all manner of culinary concoctions with his mother and maid.
“I was running around and playing ball and everything, but I always had a fondness for the burners,” Morstein said. “I would make certain signature dishes, and they were well received.”
Saundra, meanwhile, was working as a theatrical agent, booking entertainers such as Jackie Mason and Willie Nelson at conventions and other live events.
She still pops into Regi’s on occasion to enjoy her son’s success and mingle with the customers and staff who all know her by name.
“She’s proud as a peacock,” Morstein said. “I had her in the kitchen making matzah balls up until three years ago. She can make the fluffiest matzah balls like nobody’s business.
“It was pretty funny watching her with these cooks in the kitchen,” Morstein continued. “I got her a little fancy apron, and she’s back there telling these cooks who never knew from matzah balls what to do, and she’s got matzah balls flying everywhere. It was really cool.”
“There’s so damn much to tell about me,” Saundra stated proudly. “I’m a very unusual personality.”
Saundra began her long and varied career in the entertainment business singing and acting before hosting her own local television show in the ’50s. She began running her talent booking agency named, not surprisingly, after her son in 1970 and only stopped five years ago.
She was 91 and still personally escorting her eclectic roster of more than 75 popular performers to events in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
Originally from Cleveland, Saundra —“still a nice Jewish girl who lights her candles on Friday” — moved to Baltimore in 1938. She too inherited many of the recipes that have been passed onto Morstein and Regi’s menu.
“My mother was an excellent cook,” Saundra said. “Being an only child, I picked up a lot of her recipes, mentally. On top of this, I am strictly kosher, which is not easy when you’re traveling. And I traveled all over.”
Saundra is indeed quite proud of her son’s work, even to the point of delighting in the little “embellishments” he’s made to her original recipes.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I’ve given him the recipes, but he knows how to add that little touch. Alan can take from nothing and make a gourmet presentation.”
To this day, Morstein still tries to support as many Jewish food suppliers as possible to ensure that “touch” he gives has an occasional Jewish flair.
One of his creations, the 21208 Breakfast (a smoked salmon whitefish sandwich on a bagel), is so named “because that’s where all the Jews live in Pikesville.”
A great joy for Morstein is to see his mother come to the restaurant, especially during this celebratory season, and watch as she takes pride in people complimenting her on how much they love the brisket.
“It makes me her feel good,” Morstein said. “And it makes me feel good to see people order something like raisin challah French toast.
“And,” Morstein was sure to note with a chuckle, “it goes really well with bacon.”