Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Keeping It Kosher at Citron and Rose

David Magerman's Jewish eatery brings proper kosher food to Merion with some guidance from the inimitable Michael Solomonov.

Kosher Lamb sholet at Citron and Rose in Merion, PA.

Before he met Michael Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning chef of Zahav, David Magerman wanted to open a kosher Subway franchise.

The hedge-fund software developer and philanthropist was an unlikely restaurateur. Since moving here from Long Island in 2006, Magerman has devoted a fortune to bolstering the enrollment and viability of regional Jewish day schools. His aim is to expand the observant Jewish community, but gradually he came to believe that a culinary obstacle was frustrating his efforts. “People weren’t excited about living in the community,” he says, “and one of the reasons, oddly enough, was there was no place to eat.”

So the confessed non-foodie set his sights on one of the gastronomical standbys of his pre-kosher days. After all, Jared is Jewish, too.

Failure, though, works in mysterious ways. When Magerman stalled out on the Subway front, a friend put him in touch with Solomonov and his partner Steven Cook, and their three-way collaboration would eventually produce Citron and Rose, whose debut in Merion last November could be the most important contribution to Philadelphia’s food scene since Stephen Starr planted his flag in Old City.

No, really. You sense it from the moment you glimpse the double sink next to chef de cuisine Yehuda Sichel’s open glatt kosher kitchen. Between two ablutionary vessels is a basket of rye and challah bread cubes—a means for observant diners to both respect and shrink the mandated silence between washing hands and beginning dinner. It’s one detail among many that make this restaurant feel, profoundly, like a world apart from any other place you might eat. House challah and rye rolls come not with butter but garlic-spiked schmaltz. At the tables, every third head bears a kippah.

But it’s actually the bare heads that testify to what Citron and Rose is achieving. Even as it adheres to the strictest reading of kashrut, it’s rewriting American expectations for what this food can be. Most kosher re­staurants? They serve patrons who have no other options—who have to eat there or risk the spiritual wrath of a God with more severe dietary guidelines than a suburban yoga instructor with celiac disease. But a significant number of Citron and Rose’s diners could have opted to gorge on pork bellies elsewhere without risking their everlasting souls.

Here, they start with chop­ped liver. And it’s not what you expect. C&R must be the only glatt kosher restaurant in the country where globes of sour-cherry-glazed liver are planted in a “soil” of pulverized cacao nibs and pumpernickel crumbs. Unctuous and decadent, they epitomize Sichel and executive chef Solomonov’s inventive spin on Eastern European Jewish foodways, which are typically homier than the tightly executed, artfully garnished plates here.

Take the sholet, versions of which bubble overnight and into the Sabbath all over the world. Here, Sichel refines its constituents. Atop a bed of flageolet beans, he places a braised lamb shank that’s sweet with Manischewitz and prunes, complex with veal stock and coffee. Instead of (over)cooking whole eggs in the stew, he brines soft-boiled ones in coffee for two hours. The accompanying sweet-potato kishke is splendidly crispy, and when the salt balance is right (one night it wasn’t), here is a sholet to captivate Hasid and Gentile alike.

Sichel’s “crispy salmon” lived up to its adjective with skin that still crackled 10 minutes after we’d started eating. A sprightly relish brightened the plate, charred eggplant puree gave it depth, and fronds of red watercress made it pretty. Pair this with a flaky mushroom-and-smoked kasha knish—or a Lyonnaise salad that trades up from bacon to smoked duck—and you’ve got a meal light enough to leave room for a babka worthy of Seinfeldian homage: a chewy, crispy cluster bomb of dark chocolate.

Still, I’d lean toward the more rib-sticking fare—n­otably a veal breast roulade and apple/celeriac kugel that rise like volcanic islands over a lake of lava-hued beet jus. That and a Frisco Kid cocktail (rye, fernet, ginger, lime) could inspire a search for Ashkenazi ancestors in your family tree, just to see if they ever knew how to cook like this.

Solomonov is celebrated in Philly and beyond for polishing Israeli food to a high sheen at Zahav. Frankly, that’s never struck me as much of a challenge. This project, though, is a vastly heavier lift. Through him, Magerman has given his community a kosher restaurant that’s a point of pride.

“I’ve given away millions of dollars to Jewish day schools,” Magerman says. “And I’ve had people whose children go to those schools tell me that this restaurant is more important to them.

“I don’t really believe that,” he adds. “But I don’t think I really realized what a profound thing food is to a culture.”

So at a moment when chefs yearn for recognition as artists, and wealthy eaters treat organic heirloom tomatoes like a shortcut to virtue, Citron and Rose is a rare achievement: a restaurant that truly does answer to a higher calling.