Certain foods compliment each other so perfectly that to consume one without the other is a disservice to both flavor potentials: Peanut butter and jelly. Ketchup and mustard. Pretzels and Nutella. Reubens and hush puppies…?
But Kitty’s Canteen is ready to convince you that Reubens and hush puppies—along with many other Jewish-meets-Soul food blends—are the cat’s meow.
Kitty’s Canteen opened last year as a Jewish Soul Food hideaway in New York’s Lower East Side, which was once the heart and soul of the New York Jewish community.
At the turn of the century, the Lower East Side was teeming with Eastern European immigrants.
Delancey Street was lined with men selling pickles. Kosher butchers abounded. Streit’s matzo factory operated out of facility on Rivington Street.
A few special remnants of that neighborhood still exist—Katz’s deli, Yonah Schimmel’s knishes—but a coterie of all-organic cafes and bars too proudly aware of their grittiness to be genuinely gritty have filled the space.
But Kitty’s Canteen is not like these new gastronomic newcomers.
While there have been recent efforts to revive classic New York Jewish food in trendy packaging—Kutscher’s Tribeca (where Kitty’s Canteen’s chef formerly worked), Russ & Daughter’s, Balaboosta—and people in the Big Apple clamor for fried chicken and biscuits from Red Rooster to Pies ’n’ Thighs, combining the two is unlike any New York food experience.
Instead, Kitty’s Canteen serves up dishes, like Reuben Hush Kitties, fried cornmeal balls filled with the Reuben sandwich essentials pastrami and sauerkraut.
There’s brisket with candied yams, biscuits covered in ‘everything’ bagel spices with fresh sliced lox, and (my colleagues’ personal favorite) Kitty’s Famous Matzo Meal Fried Chicken.
How did this blending come about? According to Richard Kimmel, the founder and co-owner of Kitty’s Canteen, it all began with his grandma.
Kimmel said his grandma, Kitty, was a bookkeeper to some of the most famous jazz musicians of the day. She’d cook her Jewish food for them, and in turn, they’d suggest the Southern Soul spices and signatures they grew up with, leading to new dishes like the bisgel: a biscuit that looks like a bagel.
Dizzy Gillespie deserves a co-credit on that one, according to Kimmel. When his grandmother was making biscuits, the revered trumpeter stuck his finger in the mound of dough. “She and Dizzy were in the kitchen, and she said ‘Oh, it looks like a bagel.’ He said, ‘That’s not a bagel. That’s a bisgel,” Kimmel tells us.
Musicians have a hand in Kitty’s Canteen today, too. Snoop Dogg is one of the co-owners, which, of course, only adds to its cache—not that Kitty’s Canteen lacks in charm or appeal all on its own.
Before you even take a bite, Kitty’s Canteen oozes with personality.
Kitty’s Canteen looks like a Jazz Age house of ill repute that your bubbe decorated. The back wall of booze at the bar is enshrined in tchotkes, porcelain figurine knick-knacks beloved by Jewish grandmas across America.
The leather chairs at the bar have seen better days—and it’s safe to assume they were chosen for that reason, to remind people of yesteryear. Whether they were once peach, salmon, or rose, that color has faded, and the upholstery appears cracked and frayed.
Genuine black and white Kitty family photos, including those very old austere ones where no one looks happy, dot the de Gournay wallpaper.
But it wouldn’t suffice to have merely hand-painted wallpaper. Artist Molly Crabapple was commissioned to paint cats in various states—my favorite being the can-can dancing cats—over the original wallpaper.
But what really makes eating at Kitty’s Canteen so very sui generis is Kimmel himself, and specifically the way he relishes the bizarre, delighting in the grey zone between titillating us and making us feel comfortable.
Throughout the meal, Kimmel takes on a variety of colorful alter egos while making some genuinely flabbergasting culinary statements.
“It should taste as if the Civil Rights movement had a baby in your mouth,” Kimmel says when the first course is presented.
At this moment in the meal, Kimmel is wearing the poor man’s version of a kimono—a thin, rouge red bathrobe.
Layers of scarves are around his neck, while his eyes are shielded by black cat-eye sunglasses. The ensemble is completed by Adidas sneaker. Oh, and he has been talking to an inanimate stuffed feline for the past couple of minutes.
Yes, the Jewish-Soul culinary fusion is by far the least unusual part of Kitty’s Canteen.
I’m not sure if Kimmel was vamping extra for us, but from the reviews I have read, guests at Kitty’s Canteen regularly enjoy some level of theatrics with their matzo ball soup.
Then again, one would expect nothing less from the co-owner and executive director of The Box, a Lower East Side theater that earned a name for its risque, often highly sexual performances.
A New York article on the theater from 2008 quoted Kimmel as screaming “Go find the costume girl! Get me some food! Why don’t we have fifteen silver dildos?
That is very believable after watching him in action at Kitty’s Canteen.
At one point in the meal, Kimmel comes out working a marionette puppet of Hasidic man, named Moishe, who offers to make the diners a “good deal” in s stereotypical Yiddish-accented voice.
“Is that mildly anti-Semitic?,” Noah Shachtman, the Daily Beast’s executive editor, says (kind of) jokingly.
Kimmel paraded out a cast of characters during the meal, the rest of which would not set off the ACLU’s alarms.
There was Josephine, “our newest starlet,” Kimmel said; Josephine is a stuffed animal in a kimono with plastic neon pink star-shaped sunglasses.
Later on, there was an angry hoity-toity chef puppet in the classic white uniform.
His main purpose was to berate Kimmel, exclaiming, “You’re running around this ridiculous outfit! You have no idea how hard it is with this moron running the show!” And yes, Kimmel was the one voicing the jeers.
But those were the only critiques of Kitty’s Canteen heard during the meal.
The Daily Beast dispatched two employees, one representing each of the culinary ethnic groups that make up Kitty’s Canteen cuisine, as taste-testers: Shachtman for the New York Jewish food component and Goldie Taylor, Editor-at-Large, for the Southern Soul food component.
Both walked in with their admitted doubts, Taylor especially. She was adamant that New York’s many attempts at Southern food never came close to the real deal—and she of all people should know.
Her mother’s family is from Mississippi, her father’s from Arkansas, and she’s spent most of her life calling Atlanta home. She even revealed a rule of hers: “I won’t eat barbeque north of the Mason Dixon line.”
But despite her doubts, Taylor was won over by Kitty’s Canteen.
“On behalf of Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, this is the shit,” Taylor told Kimmel when she had finished the matzo meal fried chicken.
When we were back on the subway headed to our office, she said she would definitely go back to Kitty’s Canteen.
“It’s good,” though she added, “But it’s not Soul food.”