A big topic of conversation on Grand Street these days is the future of the former Noah’s Ark Deli space. The restaurant, the last full-service kosher establishment on the Lower East Side, closed last year, as its owners faced eviction proceedings from their landlord, the Seward Park Cooperative. On March 11, the co-op board will weigh whether to sign off on a new kosher spot in the storefront, located at 399 Grand St. Yesterday, we spoke with the team behind the proposal.
Residents are divided. While an online petition in support of a kosher restaurant has garnered 1000 signatures, many others believe the time has come for a new direction on a retail strip surrounded by a dwindling Orthodox Jewish population. But the partners aiming to bring a top-notch kosher delicatessen back to the Lower East Side, tell us they’re confident the concept will appeal to all kinds of people, not just observant Jews.
Seven years ago, Ofeer Benaltaba and Bill Spector opened Holy Schnitzel, a fast food kosher restaurant on Staten island, and later expanded to locations in Brooklyn and Long Island. Spector, who lives on East 4th Street, has been a club promoter in New York City for years and, he says, he’s at heart “a restaurant guy.” While Spector is a silent partner in Holy Schnitzel, he would be involved in the day-to-day operation of the LES deli.
The idea is to create a restaurant with modern touches that also celebrates the immigrant traditions of the Lower East Side. It would be Glatt Kosher and, according to Spector, would also focus on locally-sourced ingredients, organic products whenever possible and house-smoked meats. All the deli standards (pastrami, corn beef, etc.) would be on the menu but also some more unusual dishes, such as Sephardic Cholent (a slow-cooked stew). Spector said the restaurant would cater to both kosher and non-kosher locals, including people who frequent neighborhood restaurants such as Fat Radish and the Meatball Shop. “What I love about downtown,” he said, “is that you can have fine dining that is casual, and that’s what this would be.” At the same time, he says, they would be mindful of costs, keeping price points low enough to attract locals.
The partners are well aware they’ve set their sights on a tough spot. In recent years, Noah’s Ark was routinely criticized for serving low quality food at high prices. There are only a few hundred observant Jewish families remaining in the co-ops, and the stretch of Grand Street east of Essex is not blessed with high foot traffic. In spite of these facts, however, Spector said, “I relish the opportunity.” People will come from Flatbush, the Upper West Side and elsewhere if the food is good, he predicted. “We want to do this restaurant in an interesting area,” Spector explained, “with a rich cultural history.”
In order to make the business model work, there would be a robust catering business. While the co-op board has asked whether they would be willing to remain open during Shabbos on Friday evenings and Saturdays, Spector said it would be an impossibility. “It wouldn’t be kosher, we’d lose the community,” he argued. The plan is to stay open until midnight during the week and until 2 a.m. after reopening on Saturdays after sundown. If approved by the co-op board, they would apply for a full liquor license. It would be a necessary revenue stream, Benaltaba and Spector said, but clearly alcohol would only be an accompaniment to the food service.
The co-op board faces a tough choice. The kosher concept is not the only proposal on the table. While Benaltaba and Spector have a powerful ally in their corner, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (who wrote a letter of support to the board), many residents have expressed doubts that any kosher restaurant can appeal to a wide cross section of the neighborhood. Benaltaba said they’ve already proven the ability to appeal to a broad clientele on Staten Island, in a community that is not predominantly Jewish. On the Lower East Side, Spector quipped, “I see hipsters and grandpas eating side by side.”