It’s often bemoaned how arduous it is to be a Jew on Christmas—in a world thoroughly perfumed by pine trees, soundtracked by carols and bedazzled with twinkly lights. And it’s equally difficult not to get covetous over the wide range of associated edibles, such as gingerbread, egg nog and goose.
But being granted an eight-day pass to gorge on deep-fried potato pancakes (not to mention donuts) has always been the Chosen People’s ace in the hole, a holiday highlight that NYC’s annual event, Latke Festival, spiritedly celebrates. Held at the Brooklyn Museum for the first time this year, the pre-Hanukkah party featured a wide variety of restaurants (read: not just appetizing spots and such) facing off in a battle for the Golden Skillet—angling for attendee votes in exchange for next-level latkes.
Ranging from dense and creamy to crisp and lacy, and plate-enveloping to bite-sized, almost every option eschewed traditional toppers of sour cream and applesauce (notable diversions included Bustan’s labne and caviar, BAM Café’s pollo asado, Burger + Lobster’s butter-poached lobster, and Samui’s raw, butterflied shrimp). Some contestants didn’t even use potato at all: Saul Bolton (of the museum’s own The Norm) swapped in cassava as his starchy tuber, capped with Jamaican oxtail and dots of coconut yogurt.
And while Brooklyn eateries comprised a surprisingly small fraction of the field (only 7 out of 19) a duo of hometown guys rightly walked away with the evening’s ultimate prizes. Shelsky’s was a lock for People’s Choice, having accessorized each pancake with vast streamers of pastrami smoked salmon (“Hey, it’s the holidays,” he shrugged over the sizable cost incurred). Yet going free and easy with lox was far from a cheap, distracting trick—the latke too (caraway-seeded, honey mustard-stuffed, schmaltz-fried, horseradish cream cheese-swiped) was legitimately the best of the night.
Make that co-best, as Ryan Jaronik of Benchmark nabbed Judge’s Choice for the second time in three years (“I took a break between winning. I’m a gentleman,” he said). He pulled off the repeat by demonstrating a deft hand with (kosher) protein—his previously awarded short rib supplanted by smoked duck leg confit and spicy cucumber, over a latke freckled with cranberry sauce and juniper.
Hardly the type of pancake us tribe members remember growing up with, but definitely the sort we can imagine eating for eight straight nights.
Photos by Maggie Shannon