Gourmetized gefilte fish undoubtedly paved the way for the sexification of Jewish food, opening the floodgates to sake-soused challah, latke sandwiches, pastrami ramen and matzoh ball scotch eggs. So it’s not entirely incongruous to spot noodle kugel at sleek restaurants like Celestine, the newest glassed-in, glittering tenant of DUMBO’s waterside revival, especially considering the casserole’s status as the innocuous, crowd-pleasing cousin to jellied lozenges of ground and poached pike.
“I’m from the Midwest and my mom came over on the boat from Germany, so comfort dishes like noodle casserole strike a chord of familiarity with me,” chef Garett McMahan says. “I even tried to integrate her goulash during my time at [Harold Dieterle’s former West Village eatery] Perilla, thinking, How could I take an incredibly delicious dish that’s super simple and not at all refined, and make it fit into this place?”
“That was my objective with kugel,” he continues. “To pay respect to its roots but tweak it, despite my mom’s insistence that it should be sweet, composed primarily of cottage cheese, and baked in a round pan.”
And to be sure, Celestine’s version is a far cry from the bland, bread-pudding-textured pucks we members of the tribe likely grew up with. Delicate slivers are served alongside dunes of punchy, Champagne-vinegar-dressed salad, and artfully surrounded by sugar plums (standing in for the standard raisins), braised leeks, dairy emulsion and drizzles of rabbit jus.
Purists will be pleased to discover McMahan doesn’t entirely forsake cottage cheese, but it’s liberally cut with sour cream and eggs, which act as buoyant binder for handfuls of extra-fine noodles. Moreover, the rectangular slab is gently simmered in a water bath before being segmented and pan roasted, resulting in more of a silky, aerated custard than dense and spongy cake.
But perhaps the most notable addition is rabbit. The aromatic-infused leg meat is braised, shredded and tucked inside the kugel, and the lean, roasted loin is layered in coin-size slices on top.
“As a young kid, one of my very first restaurant experiences was going out to eat at a German restaurant, and rabbit was on the menu. It blew my mind, and has had a place in my heart since then,” McMahan remembers. “Which is why I’m always trying to transform rabbit into a dish that people are really into, because as proteins go, it’s kind of tough. Not texturally, of course…it’s just not a guaranteed favorite.”
That said, his visionary kugel has managed to attract patrons, despite going toe-to-toe with crowd-pleasing starters such as short rib dumplings and grilled delicata squash. The only diner withholding undiminished approval? His mom.
“When she was growing up, her best friend’s family raised and killed rabbits, and my mom remembers watching them being butchered. So while she likes the kugel, she would just rather it didn’t contain rabbit,” McMahan laughs.
In that sense, at least, Celestine’s dish hews closely to Jewish tradition: It’s delivered with a generous side of guilt.