Food wise, it’s Rico’s favorite time of year: His half-Italian side gets to feast on seafood on Christmas Eve, and the half-Jewish side gets to chow down on fried food for Hanukkah.
This week is the Hanukkah part. The holiday celebrates a miracle whereby a night’s worth of lamp oil lasted eight nights, so typical Hanukkah fare includes food cooked in oil, including potato pancakes — latkes — and sufganiyot, which are kind of like donut holes.
Both of which are on the Hanukkah menu at Redbird, one of the top restaurants in L.A. So in an upstairs kitchen at Redbird, Rico met with chef and owner Neal Fraser, who also runs a joint called BLD. Neal says the Hanukkah menu is selling like hotlatkes.
Neal Fraser: I had a restaurant — still have a restaurant — in the heart of the Jewish area of Los Angeles. Never even thought to have a Hanukkah menu. We did Passover menus. We had the lamb bone, and the salted water, and the parsley, and the horseradish. Five people ordered it. We did a Hanukkah menu and the first night, I think we sold 17 menus or something like that.
Rico Gagliano: It got a lot more interest than the Passover menu?
Neal Fraser: Yeah, it got more interest. It got more interest than my all-hemp menu that I did many years ago.
Rico Gagliano: That surprises me, in L.A.
Neal Fraser: Yeah, you’re always surprised.
Rico Gagliano: Angelenos like their hemp.
It’s interesting to me that you have a Hanukkah meal, because growing up as a Jew, I don’t remember the meal being as important as, say, Passover or Rosh Hashanah.
Neal Fraser: As a chef, no. I mean, I wasn’t raised religious, but I have a lot of Jewish friends, I’ve been to a lot of Seder dinners, I’ve been to a lot of Sabbath dinners… and I’ve never been to a Hanukkah meal. And I mean, obviously, from a religious standpoint, it’s a lot less important of a holiday.
But you know, I think it depends. Like in my old neighborhood where BLD is, there’s people driving around with menorahs on the top of their cars. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that — there’s more than one car in the neighborhood that has a menorah, and each night they light a light. So depending on how you practice and who you practice with, some of these things are more important.
I think that, for most devout Jews, all holidays are important because it’s about family, and getting together and celebrating together.
Rico Gagliano: And I can tell you from experience that a Jew will take any excuse to eat.
Neal Fraser: There you go.
Rico Gagliano: All right: Let’s start with the latkes, which is what starts your menu. I know that, as a kid, my mom would make latkes, and I always wanted them to be as much like a McDonald’s hash brown as possible. And they never were. It was very disappointing to me.
Who is right? Is it supposed to be doughy or is it supposed to be super-crispy?
Neal Fraser: I think, you know, what you’re looking for is closer to a hash brown. Latkes usually have eggs in them and flour. You know, we used rice flour in ours, but I think ours are probably closer to what you’d be disappointed by as a child. They’re definitely not deep-fried in tallow. I mean, they’re pan sautéed, and they’re delicious, but they’re more of a traditional latke.
Rico Gagliano: So I was wrong and my mom was right.
Neal Fraser: I think so.
Rico Gagliano: All right: the sufganiyot. First of all, it’s compared often to a donut. How is it different than a donut?
Neal Fraser: I don’t think it is. I think it’s a donut.
Rico Gagliano: All right, I’m in.
[Rico heads over to the bar.]
OK, I’m seated at the bar downstairs, and here comes Chef Fraser with…
Neal Fraser: …There you go. It’s potato latkes with crème fraîche and caviar.
Rico Gagliano: I could not think of a prettier looking dish. I’m really not used to latkes looking this composed, however. I’m used to usually a big pile of them on the plate.
Neal Fraser: This is fine-dining Hanukkah around here.
Rico Gagliano: It’s definitely beautiful. We’ve got the little medallion of potato pancake, and a little dollop of crème fraîche on top, and a little dollop of purple-y caviar. And I’d say these are thick… they’re not too thick; they’re not like, wafer-thin. They’re about the thickness of three quarter coins.
Neal Fraser: Silver dollar in shape.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, that’s true. So, we’ve got a lot of different kinds of monetary metaphors going on in this.
Neal Fraser: Isn’t that the whole thing with Hanukkah, too? Fake money, right?
Rico Gagliano: That’s true — it’s kind of about the size of a chocolate gold coin! And I’m going to take a bite.
[Rico eats the latkes.] Oh, that’s great, nice and crispy on the outside and just a little doughy on the inside, so you get that nice difference in texture. What is the secret to making that happen?
Neal Fraser: Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside? Cooking it relatively fast. Not so fast that the potato on the inside is raw, because that’s not a desirable thing, to eat raw potatoes.
[Also] clarified butter or butter — you know, having something to help caramelize those potatoes. Butter and potatoes are good friends.
Rico Gagliano: Not oil, you would say?
Neal Fraser: You could use both, but definitely butter is going to help caramelize the potato.
Rico Gagliano: So, this is excellent, but, you know, it’s not a donut.
Neal Fraser: The donut’s coming. The donuts are proofing as we speak.
Rico Gagliano: All right, and here comes the sufganiyot being brought to me by Jashmine, who is the pastry chef here at Redbird. Tell me what I’m… oh, my God! It’s beautiful. What am I looking at here?
Jashmine Corpuz: So, you’re looking at a traditional sufganiyot with an apple butter filling in the middle. And there is salted caramel sauce on the bottom, a nice apple compote, a cinnamon ice cream, and a little bit of brioche crumbs at the bottom holding that up.
Rico Gagliano: I will say that this is not the traditional way you would plate donut holes. We have the beautiful white plate with a shallow bowl part in the middle of it, and there’s a kind of large — how would I put that?
Jashmine Corpuz: It’s a quenelle of ice cream.
Rico Gagliano: That’s called a quenelle?
Jashmine Corpuz: It’s a football shape.
Rico Gagliano: Very good! From now on, when I watch football, I’m going to call the football the quenelle. So, a quenelle of ice cream here. It’s beautiful looking, and I’m going to take a bite of it.
[He does.] That is delicious. It’s also kind of fall-like. I mean, I guess we’re in winter now, but it does seem… it feels very cozy, you know, apple butter and caramel.
Jashmine Corpuz: Yeah, definitely. I kept all the flavors kind of simple and homey, just like, you know, regular Jewish cooking would be. But instead, making it a little bit more of a modern take, using apples instead of regular jams or jellies that they would normally use.
Rico Gagliano: All right, last question. The oil that you cooked this in — would you use it for eight solid nights?
Jashmine Corpuz: [Laughs.] Probably not.