When a new kosher establishment opens there is always excitement, but when three open within a couple of weeks of each other, that’s cause for celebration! In August, Oh Mama Grill and Canteen at the JCC opened in Rockville, Maryland, and Seasons of Maryland opened in Baltimore.
But what do a new Israeli shawarma restaurant, a Jewish Community Center (JCC) kiosk, and a kosher supermarket all have in common? They all want you to feel at home.
Oh Mama Grill
Took over the space of Café Shawreen, which closed in July, and is under the kosher supervision of the Vaad of Washington. As you head there for lunch or dinner (or late-night snacks, since the restaurant is open until 10 p.m. on weeknights), you might feel like you are walking into a small restaurant off the Shuk in Israel. And that’s just what owners Izhak Levi and Rikki Alkoby had in mind when they opened a few weeks ago.
They wanted to provide delicious food that was simple and made fresh in front of you, and they are willing to take the time to make it exactly how you want it, even if that sometimes means a longer line.
“I do it the way I like it,” said Levi, who wants his food to invoke the Israeli expression of delight: “Oh Mama!”
Their menu items include falafel, shawarma, grilled chicken, schnitzel, kebobs, and pargiot (tender, tasty chicken thighs — an Israeli favorite) in a pita, baguette, laffa, or on a plate.
“It all started with the kebob,” said Alkoby. Alkoby and Levi, along with their Israeli chef, went on to create their own special recipes for favorites like falafel, hummus, and techina so that, as Levi said, “you smile and feel like you had the best sandwich.”
They customize each order with ingredients from the full salad bar, and everything is made fresh daily. The menu also includes soups and dessert. Kids’ offerings include chicken nuggets and hot dogs.
In the coming months, they hope to start offering take-out catering for Shabbat meals, add new menu items, and streamline their service to be more efficient while still being personal. The staff has shirts that say, “Even with my back to you my heart is with you,” which sums up the experience: You may have to wait in line, but each person is served with real Israeli love.
Canteen at the JCC
Is a new kosher kiosk, also under the Vaad of Washington, in the lobby of the Bender JCC of Greater Washington.Michael Medina, who has become a kosher fixture in the region, runs The Kosher Kitchen Catering Co., the firm behind Canteen. There’s no cooking on the premises, but food is brought in fresh daily from Medina’s catering kitchen down the street.
This is just the latest extension of Medina’s food services, which you may have encountered at the former Distrikt Bistro restaurant in DC, the to-go food at Café Sunflower in Rockville, or at his high-end catering company, Medina Cuisine. Medina’s goal is to provide food options at the Canteen that are on par with the non-kosher food options that one might find at Starbucks, Panera, or Chopt. And while he aims to make the pricing competitive as well, if the price needs to be higher, the quality needs to increase too.
Medina leans toward fresh and healthy, which means fresh brewed coffee, fresh fruit, yogurts, and smoothies — but no sugary sodas. Canteen stocks foods that are perfect for breakfast, snack, and lunch, all available starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and
8 a.m. on Sundays. Whether you are dropping off your children or coming for a class or workout, the Canteen is looking like just what busy Rockville commuters needed.
The menu includes sandwiches on ciabatta bread, sundried tomato-flavored wraps with a variety of fillings, and salads — including Greek salad topped with feta cheese, Kalamata olives and roma tomatoes, grilled salmon fillet on top of mixed greens, or baby spinach salad topped with tangy tuna salad. The chocolate chip cookies and brownies are gluten free, but there are danishes and muffins for those of us still eating gluten. Canteen has begun Sushi Wednesdays and Medina says they could expand their menu options to possibly include Sunflower Bakery products as well.
Seasons of Maryland
Whose prepared foods are under the kosher supervision of the Star-K in Baltimore, is the latest branch of the Seasons kosher market chain. As I walked in at 3:50 p.m. on a Friday, a time when most other supermarkets are in shambles and the people are harried, I was surprised to see crowded calm. Constant restocking meant the other shoppers who waited until the last minute could find beautiful fresh produce, shimmering sushi, and abundant takeout, even though the doors were about to close.
That’s because Seasons’ motto is “Shop With Family,” according to Zachary Richards, the general manager. They aim to create a friendly, warm environment where the staff aspires to learn their customers’ names and faces and say “Shabbat Shalom,” and — Richards shared with pride — one staffer took it upon himself to push around a customer in a wheelchair every week.
Seasons encourages their staff to let their strengths and creativity shine through, leading to unique food options, such as the deli manager’s creation of pareve Cap’n Crunch Shnitzel. Other exciting finds include Chinese food that is on par with David Chu’s, organic and national brands of products that most other kosher stores don’t carry, and a Hungarian bakery that features cholov yisroel cheese danishes and chocolate horns, as well as pareve options.
One of the big draws is their New York-style, freshly prepared appetizing counter that features a wide selection of fresh products, dips, and side salads that are perfect for lunches or Shabbat, and hot food options that change daily. But don’t worry, there is always a Chinese food option! As it gets colder, they will offer a fresh soup bar.
We sent in a secret shopper who was impressed with the large and well-priced meat and poultry section (especially the sales items), the delicious and inexpensive challah and bread options, the fresh fruits and vegetable section, and the creative and freshly prepared sushi.
Starting after Sukkot, Seasons will offer same-day delivery to the local Baltimore area. Customers will be able to shop online, place their orders, and select a time for delivery or pick up for that day. They will also give their customers the option of shopping in the store and leaving their groceries there to be delivered to their home the same day — perfect for seniors, shopping during your lunch hour, or the caregiver stuck at home! They will also gauge if they should expand their delivery service to Montgomery County, which is an incentive for the Montgomery County crowd to make the trip to Seasons — just off the Baltimore Beltway — to check it out.
By Jacklyn Krisch
Fran Kritz Contributed to this article.
Jacklyn Krisch is originally from New Jersey, and has been in the DC area for almost 14 years. She is a mother, a religious school teacher and an active member of Kehillat Pardes (formerly the Beth Joshua Synagogue) in Aspen Hill.