David Dahan is standing in front of his new kosher French restaurant, due to open in about three weeks. The buzz from saws inside the building is relentless. So is the buzz outside.
Like, When are you gonna open already?
And, Will you serve quail? And goose?
And, "Are you the owner?" from a Jewish man passing by on New Hampshire Avenue who stops to shout up at the tall Frenchman at the top of the steps. "How can you cook French food and kosher food together?"
With great ingenuity. But forget about the difficulty of constructing a cream sauce out of cashew milk. What Dahan wants to do may be harder: to establish an upscale kosher restaurant in Washington, a town where none has ever made it.
For Jewish leaders, L'Etoile--"The Star"--is the brilliant goal upon which many hopes are pinned. Laid out in white marble and mahogany--with a wall of blond stones reminiscent of Jerusalem's Western Wall and huge rectangular lamps that look eerily like pillars of salt--the restaurant could be a symbol of a growing Jewish community. It could signify a return to more traditional Jewish values.
Short of that, it could just offer a nice, fancy kosher meal in Dupont Circle. The kind of place you could bring your mother.
But it would be a first in Washington. There's a kosher Chinese place in Rockville, a deli in Silver Spring and a pizza place in Wheaton. A few mid-range places have opened downtown over the years, but most have gone the way of post-Passover matzoh. You know the cliche of the kosher restaurant, right?
"Most of them serve on plastic--they have no style," says Douglas Bloomfield, president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "They give kosher food a bad name."
What if, instead of plastic, there were racks of wine, cloth napkins, a copper bar and an appetizer of goose liver with caramelized apples and onion? Wonderful, say those who keep kosher, just like New York.
"It's about time that Washington is becoming a major metropolitan center," says Nat Lewin, a prominent litigator who often uses a kosher kitchen in his downtown office to entertain clients. To him and others, L'Etoile represents a coming of age for this city.
But then, D.C. is not quite New York. There simply aren't as many Orthodox Jews here. To succeed, many say, L'Etoile will have to extend its reach beyond the kosher community, to tourists, Francophiles and K Street lawyers looking for a classy meal.
As Daniel Woodley, a real estate broker for restaurants and hotels in the area, puts it, "They're going to have [to have] a very broad marketing approach."
Which is precisely what Dahan is hoping to do. His restaurant will serve only meat; no dairy will enter the premises. But he's betting that if you don't know his place is kosher when you walk in, you may never even know it's kosher at all. That's chutzpah.
When Dahan's cell phone rings, which is often enough, he has to put a finger in his ear to drown out the workers. L'Etoile's opening date changes day to day, but in any case, it's coming along as noisily as possible.
Amid the din, Dahan seats himself at a table set with two wineglasses, a full array of cutlery, and broad, gleaming, empty plates. He proceeds to talk of food as though the thoughts themselves could fill him up. For Dahan, Judaism is deeply spiritual, and food is deeply spiritual, and together they form an ethic that is religious and sensual at once.
At 44, he has sampled half a world's worth of cuisines. He was born to French Jews in Morocco, but raised in Strasbourg, France, after his parents fled antisemitism. He spent many of his teen years shuffling between Strasbourg and Israel, then ran restaurants in San Francisco from 1979 to 1991. That year, weary of earthquakes, he moved to Potomac with his wife and two (now three) daughters. He tried being a stockbroker, then returned to the restaurant business. It is his calling; he cannot leave it.
"This business is like leprosy," he says cheerfully.
Dahan rattles off a sample menu for dinner at L'Etoile: Moroccan soup with lentils and lamb; beef Wellington with some unpronounceable French sauce; banana and chocolate tart with meringue. The butter will be margarine. The creme brulee will be made of soy. A three- or four-course dinner and wine might run $50.
This is not Dahan's first foray into kosher food. He already has a small cafe that serves dairy in the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and a catering business that serves meat. Meat and dairy, of course, cannot be eaten together if you keep kosher. That is one of the fundamental principles of kashrut, along with not eating pork or shellfish, and eating only meat from animals that have been slaughtered in a certain way.
Dahan did not always keep kosher. About 10 years ago his father died, and Dahan found himself moving closer to his faith. "I realized that I lost part of me," he says. He began to explore more traditional Judaism out of respect for his religious father, and that exploration blossomed into a changed life.
Three and a half years ago, he decided to combine food with faith and opened the kosher City Center Cafe.
"I realized after six months in operation that people had to wait 45 minutes in line on a Sunday night."
And he began to think bigger.
Within Washington's more observant Jewish communities, everybody seems to know about L'Etoile. They're pulling hard for it--it would make up for the disappointments of the various failed kosher restaurants.
For those who keep kosher, eating out can be an exercise in making do. If you're Orthodox, you simply can't eat in a non-kosher place. If you're a little less strict, you may go to a non-kosher restaurant, but order only certain things, like fish and pasta. Then you've got to watch things, because how do you know they haven't thrown in chicken broth with the fusilli?
Many hope L'Etoile will bridge a gap by being both kosher and high-end enough for corporate culture, so traditional Jews can join colleagues for lunch without having to go to a deli.
"The whole point is that senior partner at law firm X doesn't have to eat a tuna sandwich while everybody else is eating dinner," says Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Lubavitch and a Capitol Hill presence.
Says Tevi Troy, policy director for Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.): "It's hard enough to go out to a kosher restaurant, so I'm hoping this will be, so to speak, good enough for the goyim. . . . A lot of business takes place in restaurants in Washington."
But if L'Etoile makes it, the significance for the Washington area's more traditional Jews will be as much symbolic as practical. While greater Washington has the country's seventh-largest Jewish community, totaling over 165,000, the transience of the general population here and the relatively small proportion of Orthodox Jews has long meant there wasn't much of a market for a place like L'Etoile. A comprehensive study of the area's Jewish population hasn't been performed in over 15 years, but for much of the '80s, Baltimore, New York and Miami far outstripped Washington in the proportion of Orthodox to the larger Jewish population.
But things may be changing. Those in the business say downtown Washington's restaurants are becoming more diversified. And across the country, Jews are returning to the more traditional practices of their parents and grandparents.
Rabbi Barry Freundel can attest to these trends. He heads the only Orthodox synagogue downtown, and six or seven years ago his congregants sometimes had trouble gathering for morning services because they could not muster a minyan, the 10 people necessary for services according to Orthodox law. Nowadays, 40 may show up.
And many say kosher food is becoming easier to find even in less expected places.
"A friend of mine went to a supermarket in Tucson and got himself a fresh glatt kosher pastrami sandwich," says Shemtov. "He couldn't believe it. Of all places."
Still, Dahan will have his work cut out for him. Beyond the overhead of the fancy setting and the Dupont location, Dahan has to make up for the expense of keeping kosher. His meats must be specially ordered, and he has to pay to keep a mashgiyah watching in the kitchen at all times, to keep things kosher. And some worry that, however inventive soy and rice and coconut milk substitutes are, will non-Jews really want to eat there?
"There are people who can tell the difference," said Avi West, executive director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington. "I'm used to mock-everything, after years of keeping kosher."
And some people say the location, on New Hampshire Avenue near 20th Street next to the Clarion Hampshire Hotel, could be better. Why not put it in Montgomery County, which has the greatest concentration of Jews in the area?
Perhaps because the District's time has come, says Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).
"It's almost like a new kosher restaurant is opening almost on every corner in Manhattan," says Deutsch, who keeps kosher. "Washington is just the next step."
Dahan's greatest charge right now is that his restaurant be good. If it's good, he says, Jews will love it, and non-Jews won't care that it's kosher. If it's good, his faith, his livelihood and the culture of Washington will all converge.
"I could never go back to what I was before. Ever, ever, ever," Dahan says. He speaks with conviction, but it's not clear for a moment whether he's referring to his work or his faith. Or if he even makes a distinction.