New chefs and new ownership at two landmark Chicago-area kosher delis are shaking up the kosher dining scene. Young, enthusiastic gourmet chefs are pushing the boundaries of kosher takeout food.
Azari Deli opened inside the Jewel supermarket at 2485 Howard Street in Evanston just in time for last Rosh Hashanah, offering a full-service deli that offers a wide range of pre-made kosher foods. It took over space from the previous, Jewel-owned kosher deli there. Azari means "fire" in Persian, and it offers a diverse range of kosher foods, from classic Ashkenazi standbys to Asian, Mediterranean, and Sephardic dishes.
Azari's chef Michael Lipson previously spent eight years cooking for the upmarket kosher restaurant Shallots in Skokie, and has brought a passion for fresh flavors and an eye for detail to Azari's new menu. "Everything here is strictly homemade," he said. One of his favorite dishes is his house-made brisket: Lipson slow roasts it for 12 hours, then douses it in homemade barbeque sauce and puts it back in the oven until it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Another best-seller is sesame noodles: Lipson perfected the tangy recipe himself, and notes that the delicious noodles "always sell out."
According to co-owner and manager Meyer Emanuel, Azari filled an important gap in the local market: "There was never a complete Shabbat takeout" deli in the Chicago area before, he explained, where consumers could buy every element of a Shabbat meal in one place, from a first course like Moroccan salmon, soup, or gefilte fish, through to main courses, side dishes, and dessert.
Azari's location in the Howard Street Jewel, which is open 24 hours a day, is another plus: although Azari's kitchen closes three hours before Shabbat on Friday afternoons, Azari's pre-packaged food remains available in the supermarket at any time, day or night. "You can come into the store five minutes before Shabbat and buy a complete Shabbat meal" if you need to, he said.
That convenience seems to be a major plus for local kosher consumers: on Fridays, more Azari pre-packed food is sold in that crucial window of just before Shabbat, when other kosher delis and restaurants have already closed, than at any other time all day.
Last summer, another beloved Chicago-area kosher deli got a makeover when Hungarian Kosher Foods changed hands. The "New Hungarian Kosher" is co-owned by chef Michael Atias, who's been making bold new changes to the deli and the supermarket-and has more exciting plans to come.
Atias got his start cooking in the Israel Defense Forces, then went on to work at several successful Miami-area kosher restaurants. At Hungarian, he's kept the deli's classic Ashkenazi dishes such as kugel, salads, and gefilte fish, and added a large range of newer offerings, many inspired by the Moroccan cooking that he grew up eating in his childhood home in Israel.
One new item that's proven popular in the deli is "Potato Kisses": potatoes cut in half, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and cooked in flavorsome tomato sauce. "That's basically mafrum," a classic Sephardic dish from Morocco Jewish kitchens, explained his wife, Eva, who also works in the supermarket. The couple have responded to local tastes by toning down some of the hot spices in this dish, and some other classic Sephardic dishes, but have kept the emphasis on fresh vegetables and full flavor.
Atias added an in-house smoker; Hungarian now sells home-smoked meats including homemade pastrami and brisket. "My inspiration is Israel," he said, and the fresh, seasonal food available in Israeli markets where food is often displayed beautifully in large community markets.
The next innovation in Hungarian will be an all new deli counter where freshly prepared hot and cold foods and a revamped Israeli-style olive bar will be available for self-service take out. All items will be sold by the pound and priced low to make grabbing a quick, kosher lunch-or a whole meal for dinner-easier than ever.
Atias is also planning another major new project: opening a kosher, Italian-themed dairy restaurant next door to Hungarian supermarket. Like Hungarian's deli, this new restaurant will feature home-prepared foods cooked on site using only the freshest ingredients. Atias plans to make all the pasta, focaccia, and pizza dough by hand. The site will offer fish, pastas, salads, and fresh pastries and breads. His inspiration is "a vision of Rome" where freshness and quality reign supreme.
As both Hungarian and Azari continue to improve and expand their new kosher offerings, Chicago's consumers are the winners, enjoying greater quality and variety than ever before.
Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.