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For Some, Seder Passes Over Home Cooking

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B01

The matzoh balls float in a peppery poblano broth. The chopped liver comes stuffed in jalapeño peppers. The gefilte fish is fried and served on a squiggle of green sauce. Soft jazz plays in the background.

This is not your grandmother's kind of Seder.

Executive chef James Muir of Rosa Mexicano restaurant prepares three types of matzoh balls for the Seder menu. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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In some Washington area restaurants, chefs have been designing kosher-style menus for Passover and tables will fill up tonight with Jews eschewing family or community Seders for a gourmet twist on the holiday meal.

Growing in popularity, the restaurant Seder is seen by some as a devaluation of religious tradition, gimmicky and even sacrilegious. But others say it allows less traditional Jews to reconnect with a forgotten ritual or to celebrate Passover when friends and family are far away.

"I think it's kind of a fun, mellow, Reform way to enjoy the holiday," said Stephanie Weisman, director of catering for the Rosa Mexicano restaurant in downtown Washington, which is offering a spicy Passover menu. "Obviously, chipotle matzoh balls aren't for everyone. But we're appealing to a Jewish community that isn't very strict and wants to expand their traditions."

Passover begins at sunset today and lasts seven days for Reform Jews and those who live in Israel, and eight days for most others. The holiday celebrates the Jews' flight from bondage in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Families and friends gather on the first night or two for the ritual evening meal, the Seder, which is prepared from a very circumscribed list of ingredients to commemorate the haste with which the Jews left Egypt. Leavening agents and legumes, for instance, are on the forbidden list.

The dining-out option caters to those who want to observe the holiday but enjoy a more varied menu, restaurateurs say.

"I have to say, by the third day or so, I'm usually really sick of Seder leftovers and would love something different for the rest of Passover," said Alysa Lebeau Reich, director of marketing for Galileo restaurant in Washington. Along with another Jewish colleague, Reich persuaded chef Roberto Donna to try putting his Italian spin on the Passover menu. They're offering a Passover meal for the first time this year, including roasted baby lamb, flourless chocolate cake and a matzoh-style pasta soup.

At Rosa Mexicano, chef Roberto Santibañez worked with his Jewish boss and a co-worker who is a Mexican Jew to create a Seder like those found in his native Mexico City.

"There is a large, strong Jewish population in Mexico, and most of my Jewish friends there are now third-generation Mexicans who eat chiles with everything, including their Passover meal," said Santibañez, who also will teach a Mexican Passover cooking class at the restaurant tomorrow. "So I started talking to some of the mothers of my friends, and they serve their matzoh balls in Mexican broth that is reddish from the chiles. They serve gefilte fish with veracruzano sauce. They put hard-boiled eggs in their guacamole. And that's how the research started for our menu."

Some people will come to the restaurant this weekend to sample the exotic food with only a nod to their religion. But Jessica Segal's family has reserved the restaurant's banquet room, where they may decide to read from their Haggadah, the book containing the story of the Exodus, and use a traditional Seder plate.

"We're doing a Seder at home the first night, but we've got a lot of people coming into town and thought it would be fun to do something different for the second night," said Segal, who now lives in Arlington but had lived for a while in Mexico. Besides a spicier take on the Seder, she's happy to get a break from cleanup duty by going to a restaurant, she said.

Felix, an Adams Morgan restaurant, has offered a traditional Passover menu since 1997. Next to the red-leather drink menus are paperback Haggadahs like the one that owner Alan Popovsky had in Hebrew school.

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