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Restaurant Reviews

Faith Eating

Have you heard this one? A rabbi and a psychologist walk into a sushi bar...

Hell, I always screw this joke up. The rabbi and the psychologist own the sushi bar. Oh, crap, it's not a sushi bar either. It's a "kabbalistic lifestyle lounge and café."

Emunah Café: an organic-kosher restaurant/meeting space/retreat/lending library/shrink's office/Internet lounge/mini-temple of pan-religious holiness. Here, quoth the P.R., you will enter "an experience for the senses, & an oasis for the mind, body and soul...

"...a physical journey into your spiritual self."

With "access to a wealth of soul-shaking, earth-shattering, elevating, inspirational & interactive spiritual materials."

Feeling transcendent yet? Or is that Sheryl Crowe tune playing on the flat-screens interfering with your unobstructed path to bliss?

Seriously, Emunah Café is so more than just a restaurant. It's a way of being. I first heard about this place, which opened a couple of weeks ago, via the Gab Group; the Boca P.R. firm had sent me a couple of floridly written press releases. One trip to Emunah Café was enough to convince me that Emunah's concept had the Gab's fingerprints all over it. I wish co-owners Dr. Marla Reis, the psychologist, and Rabbi Moishe Meir Lipszyc had saved whatever bucks they spent on overwrought publicity. Personally, I prefer not to feel the Earth move or my soul shatter while I'm forking up my mahi-mahi. It's enough that the stuff just tastes good, thanks.

I mean, eating great food can be a highly reflective and spiritual experience; we know that, don't we? Just not so much when you're being simultaneously bludgeoned with smarmy pseudo-mysticism, ham-handed biblical references, and wide-eyed "Secret"-sharing come-hithers. My soul would have to be flatlining before it would need this much emergency resuscitation to bring it back from the brink.

All the blathering about souls and journeys ("only positivity is allowed" at Emunah; I'm not sure how we got in) is unnecessary and annoying. Because the food at Emunah Café is really good — even special. A lot of care has gone into the composition of this menu, attention to detail in the plating and service, and imagination and delicacy in the ingredients and preparation. That those ingredients are both kosher and organic is another big plus. It's nice that the café is wired so you can bring your laptop and spread out your papers on the bar, as I saw one customer doing, and hang out drinking good tea and munching sushi rolls while getting a little work done. What else could you want from a neighborhood café?

I know it's hard work to make a successful restaurant, particularly when you've dumped $1.5 mil into it, but Reis and Lipszyc and the Gab Group are working so hysterically, in so many of the wrong directions, that the total effect is precisely opposite of what they'd hoped to create. They've aimed for enlightenment and attained spiritual pandemonium. As for the whole question of whether we ought to be seeking our deepest spiritual essence at an Internet sushi café instead of, say, in a monastery or on a wilderness retreat — let's not even go there.

Let's go instead to the kitchen, where we'll find a little focus and clarity, some honest inspiration as opposed to a load of banal, recycled New Age claptrap. We ate a lot of food at Emunah, and I don't believe any of the six of us was even mildly disappointed — although we were once left weeping in wounded disbelief. The menu at Emunah (which means "faith") is divided into silly, biblically referent subsections: "Foresight," for the appetizers (shouldn't that have been "Foreskin"?), "Revelation" for main courses, "After the Flood" for sushi, and "Garden of Eden" for desserts (they missed their opportunity to do a "Serpent's apple pie" here). And Lord help us, these silly subsections are then larded with equally inane dish titles: "Genesis salad," "Enlightened encrusted salmon cakes," "Wholistic snapper," "Most righteous roll," "Day 5 roll," "The Chosen" (a tapas plate). Which would be funny, in a heretical kind of way, if everything else weren't so damned earnest.

So, what would Moses eat? We did have a chazan among us (or cantor, a singing and chanting teacher who leads Jewish services — that's the short explanation), and he wanted a half order of the Spirited Porcini Pasta ($13, $20 for a full) and a half order of the Jerusalem salmon ($15, $23). These half orders are a great idea, and they're pretty generous portions. Wide sheets of parpardelle had been tossed in parmesan and the sauce produced from cremini and portobello mushrooms sautéed with baby chard leaves, thyme from Swank Farms, and a little truffle oil. Interestingly put together, healthful, satisfying. The rounds of our cantor's organic salmon, set over lovely, large-grained Israeli couscous (I love this stuff) were moist and fresh. Bright notes of lemon and basil and the sharp saltiness of parmesan livened everything up. On the side: sautéed shiitake mushrooms, bursts of dark juices, set on slender spears of asparagus. Both dishes were light and subtle. As were all the flavors at Emunah — it was as if all potential coarseness and excess had been mystically channeled out of the food and into the P.R. Nothing was too sweet or too salty. No ingredient was superfluous. We did encounter one garnish that some considered too hot, but more on that later...

The trio of Mind-Body-Soul soups ($9), in this case a warm spiced apple, red pepper, and snapper chowder, were served in small bowls on a single tray with their own spoons. A clear and invigorating snapper chowder was the kind of thing you might crave if you were a New England invalid; the red pepper soup was bland and flavorless; but the hot apple bisque was a knockout. The chef said it was made with crème fraîche, Granny Smiths, cloves, and black pepper — a wake-up call of a soup that wove together sour, sweet, creamy, hot, and spicy. We never agreed on which soup represented which cosmic iteration (let my mind be ever sharp as the apple but my body less flaccid than the red pepper). We ate "inspired miso soup" ($11) topped with glistening slices of rare sesame-encrusted tuna; julienned vegetables and lemongrass-ginger-infused sticky rice lent it body, but the lemongrass shouted down all the other flavors. And we ordered three plates of specialty sushi rolls, all of them splendidly composed and unexpected. Day 5 roll ($12) combined, of course, creatures of the sea — hamachi and blue-fin tuna, with mouth-filling silk of avocado, tart Asian pear, and the bitter-cool charge of cilantro and mint, topped off with masago, sayonachi (garlic sauce), and cilantro. This, and the East Meets West roll ($13) are as good or better than any rolls I've eaten anywhere, and as Jehovah is my witness, I've eaten a lot of sushi. East Meets West rolls married chunks of white tuna and lemon basil-spiked sticky rice to asparagus, truffle oil, little spicy pea tendrils, and crispy shiitake mushrooms; a tiny salad of yellowtail carpaccio marinated in Japanese mustard, ginger, lime, orange, and, we thought, mango, came with it. The fish in all was fresh and meltingly sweet — top quality. I'm not such a fan of tempura rolls, but a perfectly executed Moses (salmon, avocado, chives, taramasalata — a Greek sauce made from fish roe — and crunchy shallots, $12) won me over.

The sushi chef at Emunah is no slouch. He's using pristinely fresh fish and pairing it with odd Mediterranean and Caribbean ingredients (mint, basil, taramasalata, truffle oil, eggplant spread, pineapple, orange, coconut), inventing what almost amounts to a new genre of eating. His partner back in the kitchen turns out entrées of equal freshness and complexity: Mahi filets wrapped in a banana leaf released clouds of curry and coconut milk-scented steam when opened ($16 half, $25 full); the fish fell apart in beautiful, translucent flakes. My "Seabass Divine" ($26) offered the tenderest cut of white fish sautéed and set over a buttery Jamaican yam mash subtly heated with Scotch bonnet peppers and drizzled with passion fruit vinaigrette, a cool apple and watercress salad (peppery, sour) alongside. What an amusing array of flavors! And then, two tiny, charred Scotch bonnet peppers.

Some of us, including me, had never bitten into a whole Scotch bonnet pepper before. The Scotch bonnet is the hottest pepper produced on Earth. There is no warning of this fact on the menu, nor did the waitress think it necessary to remind us that we might want to go easy. But "everything on the plate should be edible," John announced. So, intrepid foodies all, we each tried a piece. A piece about the size of an infant's pinky fingernail.

The experience of finding a Scotch bonnet pepper in your mouth is something like this: You're in an '80s disco, dancing happily along to Gloria Gaynor hits, and then some joker hands you a bottle of amyl nitrate. Fun, right? You take a gigantic snort. Stars explode in your eyes, the top of your head opens, and little flames erupt from all the pores in your nose. Your neck and chest blow up like a bubble, and your hands unscrew themselves and fall to the floor. It's kinda cool and kinda scary.

Nobody at our table, having had one tiny nibble of Scotch bonnet, wanted to try another. Could there be permanent genetic damage?

The antidote for pepper burn is sugar. I turned to see Ashley, head thrown back, dilated eyeballs leaking tears, neck and cheeks the purplish blue of raw tenderloin, furiously ripping open and emptying whole packets into her mouth, one after another. She couldn't speak or even look at any of us for some time afterward. Sorry, Ash!

Dessert eased physical and psychic pain — homemade vanilla bean ice cream on banana bread pudding (as good as his mum's, David said, $6). A delicious dish of crème brûlée infused with chai ($7). A so-so chocolate cheesecake ($8) and a mousse-like carrot cake with its cream-cheese frosting dotted in little islands around it, with pistachio crunch ice cream ($9). These arrived with six spoons and six forks lovingly arranged to look like silvery waves... or aggressively racing sperm...

We looked around and evaluated the décor. Very college cafeteria: molded chairs, glass-topped tables, three too many TV screens. There was barely a pliable or inviting surface, acoustics like an echo chamber. And the special treat we'd been so looking forward to, a "side dish" of intellectual chat with Dr. Marla Reis (a session at Emunah is "a casual conversation with a professional source," Reis had been quoted as saying), wasn't available — Reis was there only during the day, it turned out, and the deal was really more like psychotherapy than a spiritual rap session.

I hear that Reis and Lipszyc want to franchise the Emunah concept. No doubt investors are already lining up, waving their applications. Look forward to a line of mystical Emunah home accessories, books on tape, DVDs — just about everything you'll need to be fully outfitted for your spiritual journey. A spoonful of craven business savvy really rounds out the flavor profile of your quest for enlightenment, doesn't it? That's a Secret I'm happy to pass along for free.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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