Passover at Canela: This Isn't Grandma's Matzo Ball Soup

Once the Seders have come and gone, taking family and friends with them, Passover can be a lonely holiday indeed. If one is observant, she is relegated to sitting at home for six more days, eating her matzo and gefilte fish, because restaurants are too difficult to navigate for anyone strictly observing the dietary laws (no flour, no leavening, no beans, no rice, no lots more stuff).

Many Bay Area residents observe in our own way, eschewing the forbidden foods, but not so strictly as to eat from a only kosher-for-Passover kitchen. Recognizing this, many restaurants — some with Jewish chefs who grew up observing the dietary laws — are offering special Passover menus.

Firefly, Delfina, and Perbacco have been doing it for years. Some, like Berkeley’s Comal, are newer to the game. One brand-new arrival is Canela Bistro and Wine Bar in the Castro, which offered a few Passover dishes last year, but is doing in a more concerted way this year.

[jump] Executive Chef Mat Schuster grew up Jewish in Texas, eating gefilte fish straight out of the jar. His four-course Passover menu goes for $45, with a $25 wine flight —  just like the four cups of wine drunk during the Seder — which seems like a fine deal indeed.

Given this is a tapas restaurant, the menu is a “bit Spanish, a bit Jewish, with memories old and present,” Schuster said. The meal starts with his matzo ball soup, not quite like your grandma used to make, and it's paired with a glass of Cava. Enhanced by schmaltz, the soup is also a bit tart from the addition of lemon juice and Spanish paprika.

The fish course, which Schuster calls his interpretation of albondigas, or Spanish meatballs, blows anything resembling gefilte out of the water. Borrowing from a Jewish friend raised in South Africa whose grandmother made gefilte fish in a mushroom cream sauce, Schuster kept the mushrooms, using a delectable combo of maitake and oyster, ditched the cream, and added some garlic, white wine, and fish stock. The results were lovely: earthy and delicious, and given that the dish arrived under a cloche, nothing like its jarred ancestors. We were perfectly OK with that.

The main dish was a lamb shank, so tender it fell off the bone. Schuster said his was not a lamb family, as all Southern Jews eat brisket for the holidays, but this braised lamb was almost like a lamb-brisket mash-up.
Dessert was a chocolate olive oil almond cake, arriving in a small cast-iron skillet.

While Canela may be new at this Passover thing, don’t discount it. You have three more nights to try its holiday menu, or be sure to remember it for next year.

Canela Bistro and Wine Bar is at 2272 Market St., S.F.

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