Kosher cafeteria in the old Pikes has the right idea

Pizza and sushi are among the offerings

Eats: dining reviews, Hot Stuff

July 15, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A cafeteria-style kosher restaurant in the heart of Pikesville seems like a can't-miss concept.

Cafe 921, which opened two weeks before Passover in the cavernous former site of the Pikes movie theater, has a nice variety of food. There's a salad bar, hot entrees, brick oven-baked pizzas and even a sushi bar.

Of course, there's no meat, which by kosher law can't be served with dairy products, and no shellfish, which is also forbidden.

All food meets high standards of kosher certification. The cheese comes from New York and has been observed and approved by rabbis from the moment it left the cow's udder. The restaurant devotes about five hours a day to lettuce-washing, as a single tiny bug would render the salad unacceptable. Even the seaweed in the sushi is kosher certified.

As you can imagine, all these hoops to jump through make the kosher restaurant business challenging. But owners Lonnie Borck and Menashe Shabtai, who also helm the nearby meat kosher restaurant Brasserie at Pomona, have experience and demographics on their side.

For now, their biggest problem is the organization of the restaurant.

The restaurant is set up cafeteria style, a fine plan as long as the line keeps moving. You grab your tray at one end, then pass the salad bar, the hot entrees and a pastry case filled with prepared calzones, stuffed grape leaves, latkes and even a vegetarian moussaka. From there, you continue on to the brick oven, where you can have a custom pizza made by choosing your ingredients and the size of the pie. There's a soup station, and then the sushi bar. Finally, at the cash register, there are packaged slices of cakes and pies.

All this requires a tremendous amount of service and organization. At the salad bar, customers choose from several types of greens, then tell someone behind the counter which they want, out of some 40 choices. The server adds the tuna, chopped egg and other ingredients, then tosses the salad with the selected dressing. The price of the salad depends on the number of ingredients.

But on a recent visit, though several young workers were milling around behind the counter, nobody had staked out this labor-intensive assignment. Meanwhile, prepared foods in the pastry case all required heating in a microwave, and the line behind the counter backed up quickly while items were heated one at a time.

The microwave seemed to be on the fritz that day. We brought back several items for reheating because they were not even warm to the touch. But we couldn't understand why items like latkes weren't cooked to order. Potato pancakes rarely survive reheating, and these were particularly heavy and greasy.

Once the vegetable moussaka was warmed, it wasn't bad - it tasted sort of like a vegetable lasagna, with a ricottalike filling, mozzarella cheese on top and no noodles. Salmon cakes from the hot entree section, though, were overly salty and had a tinny flavor.

The sushi selection, which included both rolls and raw fish, was pleasant enough and arrived with a nice little salad of pickled ginger and carrots. But the best thing I sampled was the pizza, not coincidentally the only item made fresh to order. The crust was beautifully charred, and the sauce had a nice kick. It arrived at our table steaming hot.

The desserts, a chocolate mousse cake and a cheesecake with a blueberry topping, were fine, but I was disappointed that the cheesecake didn't have more texture and tang. I've had some amazing kosher cheesecakes in my life, and this one simply did not compare.

Borck said the restaurant is still ironing out its kinks. He plans to add a full bar and breakfast items, as well as sit-down service. Maybe when he hires a wait staff, he'll find a way to lessen reliance on the microwave and prepare more food to order.

Meanwhile, he's right in saying that the concept fills a niche in the Baltimore area. A restaurant that offers reasonable prices and a decent variety of foods should appeal to anyone, whether they adhere to a kosher diet or not.

Cafe 921

Where: 921 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville

Call: 410-580-1400

Open: Lunch and dinner daily, except closes at 2:30 p.m. Fridays and opens one hour after sundown on Saturdays; breakfast coming soon

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Salads start at $3.75, entrees $2.50-$16.95

Food: ** 1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

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