A Bite in the Apple: Barnea Bistro, Sophisticated and Kosher
Chef Josh Kessler and some of his signature dishes at Barnea Bistro.
For an ex-insurance salesman, Chef Josh Kessler takes a lot of risks. He left a secure career in corporate insurance for the uncertain world of fine dining. At the age of 34, he opened Barnea Bistro, a high-end kosher restaurant in the toughest market in the world: Manhattan. And after only a year-and-a-half in business, he decided to double the size of his eatery.
Kessler began dabbling in food in his early 20s. At first, he sold insurance by day and worked as a cook by night. He then was accepted into a prestigious program with a full scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), perhaps the top academy for training the greatest names in the restaurant world.
Upon graduation, Kessler picked up real world, fine dining experience by working in a number of places, including Gramercy Tavern, a high end, but non-kosher restaurant – a bit of a challenge for an Orthodox Jew who observes the laws of kashrut. But it was during his time at Gramercy Tavern, and while working as a private chef for wealthy clients, that he figured out what the next phase of his professional life would be: He would bring his brand of fine cuisine to the kosher market. Enter Barnea Bistro.
Kessler, the 36-year old father of three, opened Barnea Bistro on East 46th Street a year-and-a-half ago. At first, he offered dinner only – three seatings per day. Shortly thereafter, he expanded to lunch. He increased seating by serving food in the bar area. And in warm weather, he put tables outside. But the interest in his visually arresting, seasonal dishes was so great that he couldn’t keep up with demand. As a result, he was turning people away every day, both kosher diners and those with little or no Jewish connection.
He presents his food with beauty and flair, often serving meals on black plates for drama. He also uses the finest ingredients, buying from, for example, the fish purveyor used by Le Bernardin, what many believe to be New York’s greatest fish restaurant. So, by appearance and taste, Kessler’s food is intended to be indistinguishable from what diners might enjoy in any of the critically acclaimed non-kosher restaurants in Manhattan.
When you walk into Barnea Bistro, the only give-away that this is a kosher establishment is that many of the diners are wearing kippot. The setting is cool and contemporary. The designer of the space used fine materials– black and white marble floors, leather upholstered banquets, walnut chairs. The tables are covered in white linen and guests are served on fine china. Before you have taken your first bite, you know that this place is about quality.
When the space next door to Barnea Bistro recently became available, Kessler grabbed it, doubling the seats in his restaurant and also offering space for private parties. The expanded Barnea Bistro opens this month and is designed, like the original restaurant, by the New York-based Israeli artist Roy Nachum.
In the enlarged restaurant, diners will continue to enjoy some of Barnea Bistro’s signature dishes like fish tacos made of fluke, jalapeno, pickled onions and creole aioli, or za’atar roasted cauliflower with Aleppo pepper on a bed of chummus, or Moroccan seasoned rack of lamb served with potato puree and patty pan squash. If you’re in the mood for duck confit risotto, you’re in luck – Chef Kessler has that on his menu, too, plated with wild mushrooms, pesto and cashew cream.
Patrons get a chance to discuss these and other dishes with Kessler as the chef regularly leaves the kitchen to welcome guests and ask them about their meal. If you like seeing a chef at work, here’s your chance: Both his savory and pastry kitchens are open, behind a plate glass window. You can watch the chefs at work while you dine.
With so much growth in a short time frame, how does Chef Kessler have a life with his wife and children, something he “talks about all the time.” How does he feel about his life choice? At the end of the day, he said, “it’s good to follow your passion.”
Good-bye, insurance! Hello, rack of lamb.