Lehrhaus Brings Flavors of the Jewish Diaspora to Somerville
Not to mention an extraordinarily fun cocktail list—and community space for learning.
With boozy egg creams, hearty mac and cheese kugel, beet “pastrami” Reubens galore, shelves packed with books, and a calendar that will soon fill up with classes and events, Lehrhaus—a “Jewish tavern and house of learning”—has arrived. The venue quietly opened in March before taking a break during Passover, and now it’s back up and running, ready for primetime.
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Located in the old Kirkland Tap & Trotter space on the Somerville-Cambridge border, Lehrhaus boasts an impressive roster of food and beverage industry vets who aim to paint a culinary picture of the Jewish diaspora, drawing from flavors and recipes around the globe. So, this isn’t your bubbe’s Jewish deli: Sure, there’s that vegetarian Reuben and some Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda, but this is a place to sink into a bowl of Ethiopian stew or snack on pakora-style vegetable fritters. More details on Lehrhaus’s food, drink, and the “house of learning” aspect below.
What are you noshing on?
First, let’s get the kosher spiel out of the way: Yes, Lehrhaus is certified kosher, overseen by KVH. Dairy is served; meat is not (aside from fish). The ins and outs of kosher certification are beyond the scope of this story—just hearing about how most enriched breads are a no-go but pastries with basically the same recipe are acceptable will make your head spin—but suffice it to say, a lot of effort went into sourcing ingredients and creating a menu that’s tasty, exciting, and follows the rules.
So, what’s the concept? “What this menu represents is world cuisine through the lens of Jewish diasporic communities,” says chef Noah Clickstein, an alum of Juliet. (Acclaimed chef Michael Leviton, perhaps best known for his now-closed Newton restaurant Lumière, is also onboard as culinary consultant.) “It’s important for us to not just think of Judaism and Jewish culture as Eastern European,” says Clickstein. “We’re really trying to nail what Jewish food is—an intersection of time, constraint, and tradition.” Cue the fiddle.
Time. Those who observe Shabbat—the Jewish day of rest that spans from Friday evening to Saturday evening each week—cannot do any work during that period, which includes cooking. So, Jewish communities have developed recipes over the ages that are started before Shabbat begins and left to cook overnight. Lehrhaus’s spiced lentil stew and its crouton of Shabbat dabo, a spiced wheat bread, are a nod to Shabbat stews and bread of Ethiopian Jews.
Constraint. Kosher rules dictate everything from the meatless menu to figuring out where to source the perfect Swiss cheese for the Reuben.
Tradition. “Like tzimmes,” says Clickstein. “Something we just all traditionally eat.”
With this trio of tenets in mind, the Lehrhaus food menu dances around the globe, featuring ingredients like chakla bakla, a mixed pickle from Baghdadi Jews that migrated to Western India; the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout; and herring, brought to Jewish markets by the Dutch way back in the 15th century. Closer to home, there’s plenty of Old Bay, that famous Maryland spice mix—it was created by a Jewish refugee from Germany. And the mac and cheese kugel is “an ode to the Jews of color in America,” says Clickstein, based on a recipe from Michael W. Twitty’s Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the fish and chips, an early favorite, ultra-crispy and served with amba vinegar, s’chug aioli, and Old Bay fries. (Amba is a pickled mango condiment with Jewish-Indian roots; s’chug is a spicy hot pepper and herb condiment from Yemen.) “It’s a Jewish dish, something I didn’t know until I joined this project,” says Clickstein. As the story goes, Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal in the 16th century landed in what is now the United Kingdom, bringing with them pescado frito, fish they’d fry on Fridays, thinly coated with flour, which helped preserve the fish so it could be eaten cold the next day. (There’s that Shabbat timing again.) “You can tell the old fish and chip shops are the real deal if they still have matzoh meal as an option for breading,” notes Clickstein.
Oh, and save room for dessert: You may see options like a halva ice cream sundae (the ice cream is a custom creation by Malden-based Giovanna Gelato), or a vegan take on Greek kataifi. “We wanted to do a vegan dessert that wasn’t just sorbet or fruit, something that’s exciting to eat,” says sous chef Alex Artinian. Here, it’s made with coconut milk pudding and shredded phyllo soaked in a cardamom wine syrup. “Having something vegan on the dessert menu that people who aren’t vegan will order is the goal,” says Artinian. “[Vegan dishes] shouldn’t be, like, ‘Oh yeah, we have that if you really want it.’ The whole menu should be a collective.” (Indeed, there are quite a few other vegan-friendly options scattered around the menu, including a chopped “not-liver” made of eggplant and nuts.)
No offense, Manischewitz, but these drinks are much more exciting.
Like the food menu, the drinks highlight flavors from Jewish communities around the globe. “We have some things that might click with the Jewish deli vibe, or Israel, but there’s a lot more going on,” says hospitality and beverage consultant Naomi Levy. (You may know her from her years at Eastern Standard, or from Maccabee Bar, the Hanukkah cocktail pop-up she created that has been running for five years.) “We want to introduce people to a whole world of Jewish flavors they may not have been familiar with.”
Since the restaurant opened around Purim, one drink on the debut menu is inspired by the holiday and its famous triangular cookies, hamantaschen: All Ears, a poppyseed-garnished sour with gin, apricot, lemon, cardamom, and egg white. (While the word hamantaschen refers to Haman’s pockets, the treats are also called oznei Haman in Hebrew—“Haman’s ears”—with Haman being the villain of the Purim story.) “We’re using this very classic filling of poppyseeds as one of the flavors but also boosting it with a few more flavors that not only could also be hamantaschen fillings but are also in more of the Persian and Iranian flavor profile, like cardamom,” says Levy. “You can experience hamantaschen in a whole new way.”
And then there’s the Some Like It Harif—a spicy margarita reimagined, as the menu puts it. The heat comes from s’chug, the hot condiment also found on the food menu. If you go to a falafel stand in Israel, Levy says, they’ll typically ask if you want your falafel with harif or not—the word translates to hot or spicy but usually refers to s’chug in this context.
Getting back to the idea of Shabbat stews, the “stewed and savory” Dafina So Fine is “essentially a rum Old Fashioned using flavors of Morocco,” says Levy, with the name referencing a Moroccan Shabbat stew called dafina. Levy combines raisin-infused rum with sweet potato, ras el hanout syrup, and bitters to create a “really, really dynamic” concoction.
Let’s not forget that boozy egg cream: the PB & Deli. “Egg creams are near and dear to my heart,” says Levy. “My dad is a New Yorker, so we would go up to New York a lot, and my favorite thing was getting an egg cream. It was a special treat.” The beloved deli drink—which contains neither egg nor cream, go figure—was brought to New York by Jewish Eastern European immigrants, says Levy. “We’re combining this with another sort of universal child thing, which is peanut butter and jelly.” There’s kiddush wine (as the “jelly”), peanut whiskey, milk, and soda water. “Hopefully it provides some nostalgia in a very different way.”
Lehrhaus also carries a handful of local beers and a no-frills wine selection, but you’re coming here for the cocktails.
So, nu? What about the learning?
Jews are a “people of the book,” says cofounder and director Rabbi Charlie Schwartz. “We’re a text-based people, and the partnered learning of text—chavruta—is an ancient Jewish spiritual practice that’s one of the best Jewish ideas that has yet to become popular. We want to create the space to celebrate it in a space where people want to spend time. Food and drink nourish you in one way, and the text will challenge and nourish you in others.”
To that end, Lehrhaus will offer small classes in a room called the study, which fits around 15 or 20 people, and people will be able to sign up to meet with rabbinical students and rabbis to learn about Jewish texts. There will also be larger events and classes, too, and a membership model is in the works to let people come into the space, hang out, and do some reading. It’s not intended to be a full co-working space—there aren’t outlets everywhere, or other office-y amenities—but “if you want a space that’s not home and not work to come and spend some time to meet with someone, do some learning, or pull some books off the shelf,” Lehrhaus will be an option.
Lehrhaus casts a wide net when it comes to text. “Food is very much text to us, poetry, literature,” says Schwartz, “and classical traditional religious texts like the Talmud.” He also notes that Lehrhaus is non-denominational and open to all, Jewish or not. “If you scratch the surface a little bit, we skew on the liberal side of things,” says Schwartz, “but we also have Orthodox kosher supervision. We’re trying to create a world where different types of people can encounter each other” and come together to learn and connect.
The idea was born out of conversations between Schwartz and Lehrhaus cofounder Joshua Foer, who also happens to be cofounder of the delightful website Atlas Obscura, as well as a woodworker. The two were building a dining table for Schwartz and got to talking about what would happen after the pandemic. “‘What are people going to need?’” Schwartz remembers them saying. “‘What do gathering spaces look like? How might we create a space that’s uniquely Jewish, where people can connect, find friendship and kinships, and ask important questions with good friends and delicious food and drink?’”
Stop by and find out the result, whether that means attending a class on how ancient Jews kept track of time, or sipping a macaroon-inspired cocktail, or schmearing everything-bagel chips with smoked salmon pâté.
425 Washington St., Somerville, lehr.haus. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, with a casual, order-at-the-bar service model; closed Friday and Saturday. Find upcoming events and classes here.