Elevating Kosher Food
Joey Allaham is enticing Madonna and Ricky Martin with his upscale, glatt kosher restaurants
You may not know Joey Allaham’s name, but if you’re a kosher New Yorker, you probably know his restaurants.
For the past 12 years, Allaham’s now-iconic Prime Grill in Midtown has played host to countless high-powered business lunches, political meetings, and celebrations, bringing an endless stream of bold-faced names through the doors for a high-end dining experience. It’s been named the city’s top kosher restaurant for eight straight years by Zagat. Since then, Allaham has opened Solo (a Mediterranean-Asian fusion restaurant), Prime KO (a Japanese steakhouse), and Prime Butcher Baker (a gourmet food store).
This fall, Allaham has added Prime at the Bentley, a rooftop restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Like his other venues, it’s upscale and it’s glatt kosher. And like the others, it’s drawing a high-powered crowd. A list of Allaham’s diners includes pop stars (Madonna, Bono), politicians (Michael Bloomberg, Benjamin Netanyahu), actors (Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal), and professional athletes (Amar’e Stoudemire, Evander Holyfield). Singer Ricky Martin, now starring in Evita on Broadway, ate at Prime at the Bentley last month. “I couldn’t believe the food was kosher,” he said. “It was all so good.”
But even as Allaham finds himself surrounded with celebrities and politicians—Jews and non-Jews alike—he shuns all types of hype or gossip, about his guests or himself. “I don’t enjoy being public because I believe that, as a Jew, a person must be humble,” he said in an interview. “I never walk with my head up because you have to be thankful for what I have today and always look back to appreciate more and realize that you have to thank Hashem and be really appreciative.”
Born in Damascus, Allaham grew up in a family of butchers—but well-connected butchers who served many of the important people in the Syrian aristocracy before they left in 1992. (Allaham, 37, got to know President Bashar Assad in school, though for obvious reasons they haven’t spoken in a number of years.)
Allaham’s grandfather, who was also a butcher, used to take Joey along to see how the business worked. “He taught me a lot about meat,” Allaham said. “When I was 5 years old, I wanted rare meat and everyone thought I was crazy (because everyone eats well done over there), and when my grandfather did a barbecue, he would give me the meat after two minutes.”
Allaham moved to New York City in 1993 with intentions of becoming a lawyer. However, faced with the daunting realization that he would need to repeat much of his basic education to start a legal career in America, Allaham began his walk down a different course. “I used to work for my dad in the summers, and I was always in and out of restaurants and hotels, so I always had that love for food,” he said. He began working in the restaurant business. And having always kept kosher himself, he soon began to dream of opening his own kosher restaurant, one that would provide a fine-dining option for people who observed kashrut.
“For too long, the reputation of kosher food has not been good—people think of chicken soup, pastrami sandwich, and gefilte fish,” Allaham said. “I came to the market and wanted to provide top-quality meat that is kosher.”
While Allaham says he strives to “keep the Jewishness” in his businesses—including his exclusive catering deal with New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, announced last month—he also sees the importance in reaching out beyond his Jewish clientele. Allaham’s restaurants are “both hip and kosher,” food writer Lucy Cohen Blatter told me. “The Prime brand has created a dining experience in which kosher eaters can bring non-kosher eaters to a restaurant without feeling embarrassed—whether about the food, which is very good, or the ambience, which is elegant and understated.”
Allaham also strives to make his restaurants distinctive, so that customers who come to one of his eateries will be curious about trying the others. The new Prime at the Bentley is notable for a breathtaking view over the East River from the 21st floor rooftop of the Bentley Hotel. Executive chef David Kolotkin’s menu focuses on modern American cuisine featuring a sushi and crudo bar with Mediterranean influences. Entrees, which range from $20 to $40, include rack ribs with sweet and spicy Korean marinade, or seared salmon truffle rolls with sun-dried tomato, avocado, and truffle teriyaki sauce.
“You will not have the same experience at any of the four restaurants,” Allaham said. “I was very careful to create a totally different atmosphere in each location, from the ambience to the food. This way, a person can never feel as though he is repeating his experience.”
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