What do you get when two talented chefs marry and combine their culinary histories to open a cool place in Nolita?
Jack’s Wife Freda is just the place. The young owners are Dean and Maya Jankelowitz. Dean is from South Africa and Maya hails from Israel. They both worked for Keith McNally and met while working around the corner (Balthazar) from their three month old gem of a cafe.
The menu at Jack’s Wife Freda is a reflection of their respective cultures. There are subtle (and not so) references to the foods of Israel. Challah toast and Freda’s matzah ball soup, imply that Maya’s grandparents likely came from Eastern European.
The Israeli influences are clear in dishes like Green Shakshuka and grilled Haloumi cheese with tomato, served alongside two poached eggs.
Jack and Freda were Dean’s South African grandparents, and the charming sketch of Jack’s Wife Freda is on the sign out front and graces the top of the menus. The peri peri giblets (ode to chicken livers) points back to Dean’s native homeland.
While I was there, a few neighborhood restaurateurs slid into seats at the communal table. They caught up with Maya, ate with gusto and hurried back to their own kitchens to prepare for their own customers. When an Israeli cooking legend from the ‘hood wanders over to grab a bite, you know you are in the right place.
I told a friend, also kosher like me, that I was heading to JWF for lunch on a perfectly balmy spring day last week. “OOOH, Uber-Cool”, she sighed.
So here is why:
The interior is unfussy, with banquet seating along the walls, a communal table running down the length of the interior towards the bar, and globe lighting dotting the ceiling. The food is simply prepared, with small twists. Nobody is getting dressed up or putting on airs to enter this cafe. You want to become a regular ’cause it feels so comfortable.
The vibe is one of happy familiarity.
Maya effortlessly took it all in as she faced the sunny entrance from her position at the bar. She greeted regulars with hugs and by name. Newcomers were made to feel welcome. Orders were taken without fanfare or lengthy recitations that require cross examinations. The food was served promptly by a young and efficient staff.
Tuna Salad was a great mound of flaked tuna tossed in sweet balsamic dressing and served over arugula with a slice of toasted sourdough. It was simple and pleasing although I would have preferred a little vinegar or lemon over the sweet notes.
Crispy Sweet Chili Tofu presented as a neat rectangle of panko crusted tofu over a bed of moistened jicama, onions and red peppers. Ingredients are easily discerned and not meant to stump the customer. Vegans will be happy with this choice.
I loved the Smoked Paprika Egg Salad sandwich, served on toasted focaccia with salty feta, roasted red peppers and distinctive paprika enlivening the eggy mash.
The breakfast/lunch menu is served from opening til 4 PM with sides of couscous, already legendary hand-cut fries, chopped salad and arugula greens available at $5 each.
The sign over the expansive French doors, the paper menus that double as place mats, the simple line drawings and hand lettering dotting the graphics, all feel homey.
More importantly, what feels so right are the uncomplicated preparations, the fair prices, the insertion of some unique seasonal juices (fresh cantaloup), along with familiar Middle Eastern touches like mint tea and Lebanese yogurt served with granola.
Dinner is a simple affair, too, with three of the six entrees doable (veg or fish) for anyone who is kosher like me.
I’ll chose Fried Zucchini Chips with smoky paprika infused aioli, Freda’s Fish Balls (an ode to gefilte), vegetable curry over cous cous with house chutney and a local beer.
Thank you very much for not overwhelming me with complicated choices and fussy preparations.
In keeping with the brief and easy to navigate menu, only a few wines are offered, along with 3-4 bottled beers and another handful offered by the half pint and pint.
Three house made desserts are offered including the home style strawberry and rhubarb crisp. It arrived like a waft of fragrant and fruity spring, just in time for Maya to come over and introduce herself.
Her open and sunny disposition, along with uncomplicated dishes packed with unique flavors, will ensure Jack’s Wife Freda continued success in this busy neighborhood.