What would the 4 Questions column be without a featured chef for Passover? This year I was lucky enough to chat with Josh Lewin, executive chef at the Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro. His $38 prix fixe dinner features matzo brei with salmon roe and grilled ramps, and braised beef brisket with melted red cabbage and a sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) latke, and will be available March 25-26 from 5:30-11:00 p.m.
How is the food at your seder different from the typical meals you serve? In what ways is it the same?
The menu at our Passover meal is different from our typical menu mainly in that it is evocative of dishes we would have enjoyed around the holiday table with our family. Technically, we are cooking exactly as we would on any other night. The way we treat the ingredients overall is the same. The style of service and the presentation is the same. But what we are really doing is bringing that professionalism to the memory of my grandmother Ruth’s cooking.
I am not religiously observant, but I am culturally observant. It is very important to me, this collective memory, and the emotions behind it. The hope is that our guests will find something they recognize in the menu and on the plate, and they can have that same culturally reminiscent experience in our dining room. It’s not a seder; it’s just a trip down memory lane.
Will your homemade matzo be in addition to your regular bread service or in lieu of it, and how will you be explaining it to the average patron who’s expecting a typical meal?
Yes, in addition to regular bread service. The restaurant will be open for regular a la carte service at the same time we run the Passover menu. So the matzoh service will be, of course, presented to anyone ordering from the Passover options, but also available to anyone else who would like it on those two nights as well.
Passover is a holiday that celebrates springtime. Is there any dish or food on this special menu that really embraces the season?
Yes, of course. We are actually hitting Passover a little bit early this year, so we are a bit between seasons on the calendar and the menu reflects that. We are hoping for some ramps for a matzoh brei course. Barring that, we will find some foraged green component for that very spring-oriented dish. An early taste of the new season.
Of course Passover observes the Jews wandering in the Middle East. What’s your favorite dish from the region?
Cuisine throughout the Middle East can actually be quite varied. It doesn’t really make sense to think of it as one region. But some common themes that I really appreciate are their use of pickles, which are going to be a little different from the common brined cucumber in the States. And they are fantastic. Also, the really bright salads using texture and brightness and a lot of fresh herbs, alongside the usual lettuces. So these are some common themes throughout a region that is vast and varied in its flavors.
Hospitality is a major theme among families, friends and often strangers. There is a well-known phenomenon of “desert hospitality,” where everyone is always ready to share and to break bread. So you find the cuisine peppered with all of these fantastic spreads and dips and cheeses, things that are easy to pass and to share. A lot of tastes are actually quite recognizable to our local palate, but maybe used with a little more passion. Among my favorites are roses, fresh herbs, vanilla, preserved citrus, marjoram, fenugreek and the always-welcome purple-hued sumac.
To get a little more regionally specific, the gulf areas around Syria, Lebanon and Israel have the world-famous taboulleh and falafel. Turkey has a fantastic eggplant preparation called imam hayildi, which I will challenge any non-eggplant eater to refuse. And then in Iran, there is this dish which is literally a bowl of fresh herbs called sabzi khordan, meant to be enjoyed as is. For me one of my fondest memories of eating around the table is dipping parsley in salted water over the course of the seder. Put a bowl full of fresh herbs and flowers in front of me and I’m happy.