Since as far back as the 1830′s, when New Yorkers first discovered the decadent joys of the Delmonico’s power lunch, the city’s political movers and business shakers have been sealing their deals over … trayf!
Hewing to a select list of see-and-be-seen spots-the Regency for breakfast, the Four Seasons for lunch-they have clinched mergers over crab cakes, bought buildings over pork shanks, and forged political alliances during three-martini lunches at the “21″ Club. It’s enough to make a Jewish mama weep.
But in the spring of 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver needed a natty spot to negotiate what would become one of the signature deals of the Mayor’s term-the legislation that gave him control of the city’s public schools-the two power machers did something different.
Taking a sharp turn at Park Avenue and 49th Street, they headed to a steakhouse called the Prime Grill and hammered out an agreement over kosher steak and fries.
“I believe this was the key meal when they came to an understanding about the Mayor taking control,” said a source familiar with the tête-à-tête. “It was a three-hour lunch, 1 to 4 p.m.-just the two of them.”
And they have hardly been the only high-powered hamishers to strike a deal under the Prime Grill’s rabbinic seal of approval. Since it was launched in late 1999, the Prime Grill has become the center of a new kind of diaspora power dining-a sort of lunch-time machers’ minion where Jewish heavyweights like Ron Perelman and Larry Silverstein kibitz, hondle and, yes, break bread.
Each weekday, from late morning until deep in the afternoon, the 170-seat restaurant buzzes with the sound of high-stakes schmoozing, as rabbis and politicos, hedge-funders and financiers, eat their lunch by the twosies, twosies. Many of these regulars are Orthodox- kipah-wearing members of the observant Jewish elite, or “Kosher Nostra,” as some jokingly call it-but just as often, the crowd is an ecumenical mix of religious and secular, Jew and non-Jew.
On any given afternoon, a guest is as likely to see the ultra-observant Rabbi Joshua Metzger presiding over a meeting of fuzzy-faced yeshiva bochers as to see the über-flamboyant Donald Trump dining out with his observant attorneys. On special occasions, Steven Spielberg might make an appearance, or perhaps Madonna (also known as Esther bat Tony) will pop by with her husband, Guy Ritchie.
“Deals get done here,” said U.S. Representative and Democratic Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn and Queens. The Observer found him sampling the restaurant’s green-tea ice cream one afternoon; he had come to meet the restaurant’s owner, Joey Allaham, about Brooklyn Jewish community business, but he also acknowledged, “I’ve had lunches with people that I might have perhaps asked for money at some point-though that doesn’t narrow it down too much. Put it this way … if you were going to stake out a restaurant waiting for an important Orthodox person, you’d find him here after a couple of days.”
Nu? Clearly we’re not on Delancey Street anymore!
“It’s kind of like an Orthodox version of the Regency power breakfast,” said Democratic lobbyist and Prime Grill power nosher Suri Kasirer, as she nibbled on a meticulously prepared salad on a bustling Monday afternoon. It was just after 1 p.m., and though Monday tends to be the quietest day, the dining room was practically vibrating with the sounds of clinking forks, animated chitchat and after-meal prayers.
“It’s 95 percent business,” explained the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Allaham, of the Prime Grill lunch crowd. “People come here to close deals, to look for deals-some customers come in just to see who’s here. They hand out business cards. It becomes a place for people hunting and shopping for business.”
One person who has not been shy about taking advantage of the Prime Grill’s schmoozy atmosphere is Arthur Luxenberg, a founding partner of the law firm Weitz and Luxenberg and a Jewish-community muckety-muck. Though he rarely does firm business at the steakhouse, he has done a jaw-dropping job of raising money for his two favorite charities, the North Shore Hebrew Academy and Young Israel of Great Neck. “It’s a fabulous place to network, because invariably you’re going to meet [someone you know] and they’re going to be with their clients, and there’s a synergistic relationship there,” said Mr. Luxenberg. “It’s been a good luck spot for me,” he added. “I’ve done major fund-raising there. Millions of dollars.”
With so much money floating around-and with so many people who are apparently eager to spend it-it’s hardly a surprise that politicians, among others, go gaga for the Prime Grill. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both paid visits. And Senator Joseph Lieberman and Gen. Wesley Clark both held fund-raising powwows there during their campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination. More recently, Andrew Cuomo-who is widely believed to be running for State Attorney General in 2006-was spotted lunching in the restaurant’s wood-paneled dining room earlier this spring.
Nothing Like It
In decades past, the words “kosher restaurant” rarely conjured up images of $39 lunch steaks and white-aproned waiters ministering to the needs of the city’s power brokers. Instead, kosher dining was a down-market affair, rich in shtick and saturated fats, but poor in “ambiance” and gourmet delights. A product of working-class life, kosher meant old-world delis like Bernstein’s on Essex Street and greasy lunch counters like Gottlieb’s on Roebling-not the Prime Grill on 49th Street.
“Years ago, there was nothing like this, you know what I mean?” said Abraham Biderman, a Prime Grill regular, who grew up on Gottlieb’s ultra-crispy French fries. “Believe me, the notion of people spending the kind of money that people spend on meals here would have horrified our parents.”
But in recent years, all that has begun to change as two separate, but simultaneous, trends have begun to reshape New York Jewish life: the upscaling of the frum, or Orthodox, community and the frumming of the upscale one. These trends have meant more Orthodox eaters with money to spend, and, for perhaps the first time, there’s a genuine demand for kosher cooking that can compete, in both taste and style, with the trayf charms of, say, the Regency and the Four Seasons.
“Now that the community is much more successful, they need a place to interact-not only amongst themselves, but also with non-Orthodox people,” said Mr. Biderman, who served as both finance and housing commissioner under Ed Koch and is currently an investment banker. “For instance, if you’re competing for a deal with other people and they’re going to take him to a steakhouse or whatever, you want to be in a position to be in a competitive environment. You need a place that will give him the same ambiance, and [the Prime Grill] provides it.”
Indeed, with its white-skirted tables and warm wood interior, the Prime Grill does have a certain clubby old-boy aura. Designed by Matt Markowitz, who also conceived Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen, the restaurant has a simple, understated elegance that’s a far cry from Gottlieb’s-but also doesn’t dazzle in the same way as, say, the Four Seasons or Le Cirque. Throughout the day, Frank Sinatra croons over the sound system while industrious Eastern European waiters-all men-zip from table to table in smart ties and whale-blue shirts (whales, incidentally, are not kosher).
Perhaps the only signs of the Prime Grill’s kosher bent are the tiny prayer boxes, or mezuzot, that hang discretely beside each of the doors and the silver basin that sits in a hallway so that observant Jews can perform their ritual pre-meal washing.
“It’s haimish and haute at the same time,” said Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence, Long Island, as he finished up a three-course power lunch on a recent Friday afternoon. “The people who own this place found a niche. What they recognized was that the businessman of today is not only wearing a Hermès tie, he’s wearing a yarmulke.”
With its pricey steak-and-sushi menu, the Prime Grill has undertaken the ambitious challenge of adapting the look and taste of nouvelle cuisine to the Orthodox Union’s ultra-strict dietary guidelines. “Kosher” actually means “ritually fit or pure,” and the 3,000-year-old code consists of dozens of complex strictures that can cramp the most accomplished chef’s style. Milk, of course, cannot be mixed with meat, and shellfish are verboten-but that’s only the beginning. Stoves can only be lit by Jewish hands, lettuce must be checked to make sure it’s free of insects, and meat must be soaked, salted and drained of its blood before it can even enter the restaurant.
“It’s a challenge; it keeps one on one’s toes,” said Chaim Maryles, the Prime Grill’s kosher supervisor, who arrives at 6 o’clock every morning to light the restaurant’s 30 or so ovens and unlock its 15 refrigerators.
Nonetheless, the Prime Grill’s chef, David Kolotkin from Windows on the World, has managed to create gourmet-style dishes like honey-mustard-glazed wild salmon and chili-rubbed hangar steak. This is no simple task-the equivalent, perhaps, of making a ball gown out of a bolt of polyester-but even non-kosher diners have been impressed. In 2003 and 2004, the Zagat Guide rated the Prime Grill as the city’s top kosher restaurant.
All of which may explain the clusters of diners who hover around the maître d’s station on weekday afternoons-to say nothing of the ritual jousting for the restaurant’s most valuable tables. “It becomes a daily routine,” said Mr. Allaham with a world-weary shrug. “People fight over the tables. That’s why I like to disappear during lunch, because if Mr. So-and-so does not get his table, then we’re going to have problem. Some people offer to pay money.”
It wasn’t always like this.
Mr. Allaham, 29, began his career in the restaurant business some 11 years ago as what he calls a “middleman,” selling and delivering kosher meat to local restaurants. He was 18 and had just moved from Damascus, where his Syrian-Jewish family had been in the wholesale meat business for four or five generations. (Allaham means “meat” in Arabic.) He had initially hoped to continue the family tradition here in the United States, but he found it hard to break into the insular New York market. At the same time, he discovered that there was a real untapped “need” for a kosher restaurant that could cook a good steak.
“I saw they lack any knowledge of meat; they have no idea of the quality,” said Mr. Allaham, dismissively shrugging off his kosher competitors, as he took advantage of the mid-afternoon lull between lunch and dinner to sit for an interview. Short and lean, with receding hair and restless brown eyes, he had a pent-up energy that made him seem alternately like one of his well-connected customers and an eager young kid.
“I said, ‘You know what? There’s a market here, so do something,’” he continued. “‘But take it a step up; take it to the other level that it competes with the non-kosher.’”
With this idea in mind, Mr. Allaham set about conjuring the Prime Grill into existence. Never mind that he had no real capital and no experience creating or running a restaurant. With precocious determination, he borrowed money, found a partner, discovered a space and then set about persuading the owner of that space-the real-estate developer and restaurateur Arthur Emil-to let him turn it into a kosher steakhouse. Mr. Emil agreed, and in the process he became something of a mentor to Mr. Allaham.
“I was enormously impressed by the energy and creativity of Joey [Allaham]. He struck me as somebody who was very competent, though very young,” said Mr. Emil, who created Windows on the World with the legendary restaurant maverick Joseph Baum.
The Prime Grill opened its doors in the fall of 1999, but for the first two or so years, business was decidedly rocky. The restaurant had trouble attracting business from outside the Orthodox orbit, in part because kosher food was just not considered a classy crossover cuisine, and tables sat empty. “It was a lot of struggling, a lot of borrowing,” Mr. Allaham recalled. “At one point, I was not bringing money home.”
That gradually began to change in 2002 and 2003, however, as word of the restaurant spread beyond the kipah crowd to the broader Jewish and even non-Jewish world. One customer brought another customer who brought another, until eventually the celebrities began showing up.
These have ranged from the typical landsleit types, like Jackie Mason and Steven Spielberg, to the downright unexpected, like U2 front man Bono, Mets’ pitcher Kris Benson and Mr. Benson’s stripper-turned-model wife, Anna. (The appearance of the latter apparently set off some serious palpitations among the Lipitor set.)
Madonna has come “at least 10 times,” Mr. Allaham said, and more recently the inimitable prankster Sacha Baron Cohen (also known to HBO audiences as Ali G, Borat and Bruno) showed up for a surprise kosher fix. The chef, however, regretted to inform him that the restaurant didn’t have any “Jew claw” on the menu that night.
Along the way, Mr. Allaham has made enough money to buy out his original partner, and he impressed enough investors to open a sibling steakhouse in Florida and a kosher Mediterranean affair called Solo on East 55th Street. At the same time, Prime Grill has become such a see-and-be-seen spot that some dining duos, like Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Silver, have reportedly begun taking their lunchtime powwows to a little deli called Noah’s Ark to stay under the radar.
Still, for all this-all the glitz and hoopla and aggressive schmoozing-the Prime Grill remains, at its core, a kind of displaced shtetl. It’s an upscale one, to be sure, but no less provincial. Everybody seems to be friends or cousins or neighbors with everybody else, and no matter how sleek the setting, the Lower East Side is never really that far away.
On a recent Monday afternoon, for instance, Mr. Biderman was threading his way out of the Prime Grill after a rich rib-eye lunch when he happened to notice an affable-looking man in a black yarmulke and spectacles. The man, a managing partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers named Mordecai Soloff, saluted Mr. Biderman, and the two men shook hands vigorously. They chatted for a few moments, and then Mr. Soloff explained: “We were classmates together at yeshiva. Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and then Brooklyn College.”