For those among you whose viewings of Dirty Dancing tally somewhere
in the hundreds, Kutsher’s should have a familiar ring. The Monticello, New York, hotel often credited as an inspiration for the cultish ’80s flick is one of the last survivors of the borscht belt—a cluster of Jewish resorts that thrived in the Catskills through the 1970s. It’s also a recently opened downtown restaurant, buzzing with flush Tribecans and food-world first-responders—but more on that in a moment.
First, let’s dispense with the nostalgia. The Catskills as imagined in Dirty Dancing told of sexy, trangressive cha-cha instructors and scheming bungalow bunnies. But when my folks finally hauled me to Kutsher’s in the late ’80s, the place was well into its decline. The boom times, when Wilt Chamberlain was a bellhop and Jackie Mason played to packed houses, had given way to something resembling a community center for active seniors: bingo games, makeup demonstrations in the lobby and afternoon swims in a soupy indoor pool. Fittingly, it was in the big and cacophonous dining room there that I collided with some of the Semitic canon’s more timeworn foodstuffs. I recall sending my inaugural bowl of violently pink borscht back to the kitchen untouched (“It’s…cold,” I told the young waiter). None of this unfashionable food was any good, mind you—the sinewy boiled beef flanken, the gummy lox. But there sure was a lot of it.
So you’ll understand why I rankled at the news that serial restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow planned to open a place inspired by the faded resort with, among other partners, its scion, Zach Kutsher. (His family no longer operates the hotel.) I tittered and sneered. I sent word of the project to my old Hebrew school cronies. I condemned it as unpardonable kitsch, and waited for the food establishment to tear it apart like a hunk of braised brisket.
But then I ate there.
The space itself abstains from schmaltz (although it is rubbed on steak and mashed with potatoes back in the kitchen). Not schlocky or sentimental, the buzzy room could be a log cabin as designed by Bauhaus, with Russian Baltic birch-wood planks and sleek blue banquettes rippling along the walls. The welcome is disarmingly poised; the menus delivered without the campy wink-nudge you might expect. But executive chef Mark Spangenthal is doing the real heavy-lifting here, deftly scouring Jewish culinary touchstones and teasing grandeur from humble, familiar foods.
You might start with some of his house-made deli meats: peppery pastrami ridged in fat; supple veal tongue; or a pot of tangy duck-and-chicken liver with rye bread, pickled vegetables and grainy mustard. There are lacy potato latkes (topped with caviar if you wish) and an opulent gefilte fish revision with wild halibut, beet-horseradish “tartare” and tendrils of micro-greens.
In the years since that first brush with borscht, I’ve cottoned to the earthy pleasures of the chilly beet soup. But given the choice, I’d still go with Spangenthal’s reimagined version: a salad of steamed beets and goat cheese, artichoke segments and fingerlings that would be equally at home in a French bistro.
Some entrées continue in this impressionistic vein. Kreplach, the dense meat- or potato-filled dumplings often found bobbing in chicken soup, are adapted here into baroque tortellini—delicate bundles oozing ricotta and mushrooms, lavished with walnuts and sheep’s-milk pepato. Others leave well enough alone. A grilled “Roumanian” skirt steak is straightforward and satisfying, the rich, charred LaFrieda meat served sliced beside a mushroom knish. A side of potato kugel isn’t fussed with either, threaded with spinach and more mushrooms in a cast-iron pan.
But for all the restraint of the savory menu, the tinsel desserts bring back memories—the bad ones—of the Kutsher’s of yore. The leaden black-and-white cookie ice cream sandwich and cloying babka bread pudding were both missteps that verged on parody.
These blunders reminded me of the dangerous balancing act at play here; the punch line percolating behind every cheeky dish. True, you needn’t know the source material to enjoy a meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca—the food here speaks for itself. But keeping both novelty-seekers and serious diners on board will be an ongoing challenge. Should the chef cave to easy gimmicks, the place could go the way of the borscht belt in a hurry.
Eat this: Pastrami, veal tongue, kreplach, “Roumanian” skirt steak
Drink this: Cocktails, like the Bungalow Bunny ($12) with gin, a berry cordial and smoked bitters, are sugary and unpleasant. Stick with a glass of wine (the King’s Ridge pinot noir, $13, from Oregon is a versatile choice) or a Sixpoint draft.
Sit here: Request a banquette along the east wall for the best view of the proceedings. At the round marble four-tops in the center of the room, you may be jostled by passing servers.
Conversation piece: In his teens, partner Alan Wilzig worked as a lifeguard at the hotel. When asked, during an October Tenement Museum lecture, whether he witnessed any Dirty Dancing–style antics, he answered, “We were too busy shtupping to do any dancing.”