July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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Jelly Jacob’s Ptcha’oria: A New Home for Fine Dining

Over the past decade, once disdained traditional Jewish foods have come back into vogue—but these are not your momma’s mandelbrot. These gefilte-filled noshes have been getting a foodie makeover that no traditional balabusta ever imagined. From honey-mustard gribenes to scotch-infused schmaltz herring, traditional matzo ball-associated foods that used to make us roll our eyes as our mothers tried to stuff morsels down our throats, have been incorporating and intersectionalizing gourmet trends, in search of a younger and more affluent market.

One of the newest chefs to try his hand at this sort of Jewish haute cuisine is Yaakov Aspict (aka Jelly Jacob) whose new ptcha-focused fine dining restaurant Jelly Jacob’s Ptcha’oria opened this week in Bergenfield. During the restaurant’s soft opening I had a chance to visit the Ptcha’oria, sample the cuisine and sit down with Aspict to learn about him and his vision for the restaurant.

Jelly Jacob’s is an 800-square foot restaurant located next to the Valvoline on New Bridge Road. The exterior of the restaurant is unassuming, with a white exterior, and a rather simple sign of black script letters. The inside is decorated in Mediterranean pastels, with rustic pottery and wicker covered bottles used as candle holders decorating each table. “Ptcha’oria is a contraction Ptcha Trattoria, so I wanted it to look like a real trattoria,” explained Aspict.

Ptcha, to the uninitiated, is (when traditionally made) calves’ foot jelly flavored with garlic, and is usually served in murky brown-gray colored squares. At Jelly Jacob’s they make Ptcha from the feet and bones of a variety of kosher animals and fish, including calves, lambs, deer, bison, geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, quail and carp. “If it is kosher and contains collagen, I will ptcha it,” claimed Aspict.

As the person in The Link’s offices who is always stuck reviewing the oddball restaurants (I am still getting over my trip to review that chopped-liver-and-waffles place in Highland Park last month), I was not wholly surprised when I was asked to cover the opening of Jelly Jacob’s. At least it had to be better than the shmaltz ice cream flecked with gribenes and onions that I tried at Mendy’s in New Rochelle.

When I arrived at the restaurant (I first took the opportunity to drop my car at Valvoline for service), the rather jovial 50-year-old chef and owner was standing at the door, greeting each of his customers and telling one and all to “Call me Jelly.” Dressed in a slightly too-tight white chef’s coat, the rotund, balding Aspict exuded real warmth, and a charismatic desire to get to know each of his customers. When I let Aspict know that I would like to interview him for The Link, he immediately stopped greeting people, told me how much his kids love The Jewish Link, particularly Shayna B’s advice column, and showed me to a table and sat down for a few minutes to tell me about himself, and answer some of my questions. When I asked him about why he opened a ptcha-focused restaurant he gave me a rather lengthy answer:

“When I was a kid, my mother served Jello all the time; it was our regular dessert. On special occasions she would make these elaborate Jello molds filled with fruit, cream cheese and heavy cream. I was always captivated by the texture of Jello, the way it felt wiggly as it entered your mouth. It was the best. But when I was 10 my parents became frum, my mother changed what she cooked, and Jello all but disappeared from our table because all her recipes were dairy, and the pareve Jello didn’t have the same feel. I always missed it, but the filling and calorific fleishig Shabbos dishes like yapchik kugel and brisket went a long way toward filling the void.

“When I was 18 and learning in Israel, one day I went to a restaurant in Geula with my chavrusa, and there was something on the menu I had never heard of—‘ptcha.’ I was not even sure how to pronounce it. My chavrusa told me that it was sort of a meat-flavored Jello. My eyes lit up. I had to try something that combined my two favorite things: meat and Jello. With that first bite I was in heaven … My wife does not like it when I say so, but that day in Geula was the happiest day in my life.

“Ptcha became a regular part of my life, and for the last 25 years I have made ptcha virtually every Shabbos, experimenting with new recipes and techniques. Though until I opened Jelly Jacob’s I never made ptcha professionally. I spent most of my career working in investment banking. But I have always been a people person, so when my office went remote during COVID I started hating my job; I never saw anybody except on Zoom. I talked it over with Rachel, my wife, and we decided it would be OK for me to retire and dedicate my second career to my first love, ptcha.”

Jelly Jacob’s is a small-plates restaurant. Aspict recommended that I order at least four or five different ptchas. I joked that I was going to need a stiff drink to get through that much ptcha, so he suggested I start the meal with a ptcha-tini, which turned out to be dry gin martini served with three olive-sized spheres of ptcha on a two-pronged toothpick shaped like a wishbone. The martini was a bit dry for my tastes, but I did note the subtle meat flavor that the ptcha added to the martini.

With the drink, the waiter brought a plate of what the menu calls “Jelly’s Housemade Hexagonal Flatbreads.” These are served with every meal. While they may have been housemade, they looked like, and (more or less) tasted exactly like, Tam-Tam crackers. I know because I keep a box in my car at all times for emergencies, except on Pesach when I replace it with a box of matzo.

Next up was hot ptcha. This was a very rich beefy soup made from calves’ feet served with a curette of garlic-vinegar on the side. The acid of the vinegar added a vibrancy to the soup. The menu explains that this is the original form of ptcha and was a specialty of the Jews of Turkey. (Even the word “ptcha” is apparently a Turkish word.) Ashkenazi traders took ptcha back to their homes in Eastern Europe where it was transformed into a cold dish.

When the soup bowl was cleared, my waiter placed three small plates in front of me, each containing a two-inch piece of ptcha, molded—with striking detail—into the shape of the animal from whence the ptcha was made. (Aspict told me that he designed and manufactures his own ptcha molds, which can be purchased at the restaurant, or from jellyjacobs.com, for $99 for a set of 10 molds.) The venison ptcha was rich in flavor but had a strong gamey quality, which I found off-putting. The bison ptcha was good, but did not strike me as having a distinct flavor—the garlic was the strongest flavor note—and I could have easily mistaken it for traditional calves foot ptcha. My favorite of the three was the goose ptcha—it was so rich, and actually tasted of roast goose. It was so good I was tempted to lick the plate.

While I was finishing my last bite (or lick) of goose ptcha, Aspict brought me a plate of something he wanted me to try, his “homestyle” chicken ptcha. Unlike the other ptchas that had been molded, this was a triangular wedge of ptcha that had a whole chicken foot in it, with slices of hard-boiled egg daintily placed between each toe. “This is one of my favorites,” said Aspict. “I got the recipe from my mother-in-law, who grew up on a chicken farm. This is how her mother used to make ptcha. Try nibbling on the foot once you’ve eaten all of the jelly.” I enjoyed the chicken flavor of ptcha, but found the actual foot, which admittedly was very flavorful, rather awkward and embarrassing to eat. It sort of felt like I was gnawing on toenails.

The final dish I tried that evening is called “Ptcha Deconstructed and Reconstructed,” which the menu describes as “an homage to molecular gastronomy prepared table side.” Aspict rolled a cart to the table containing, among other things, a small metal bowl of ptcha, a blowtorch, a whipped cream canister and a thermos of liquid nitrogen. “This dish is my chance to play mad scientist,” he explained. He first lit the blowtorch and used it to melt the ptcha in the bowl into liquid, which he then poured into the whipped-cream canister, and charged with nitrous oxide.

He then placed a plate in front and discharged the contents of the canister into a cloud-like foam on my plate. This, he informed me, is “ptcha deconstructed.” The foam was weird. It tasted like chicken soup, but had an almost effervescent texture, like natural mineral water.

Next, Aspict poured the liquid nitrogen into a small mixing bowl and discharged the remainder of the ptcha foam into a metal soup ladle. He touched the bottom of the ladle to the surface of the liquid nitrogen and almost instantly re-jelled the patcha. This, Aspict informed me, was “ptcha reconstructed.” It simply tasted like really cold, and slightly fluffy, ptcha, with some icy bits in it. Overall, both the deconstructed and the reconstructed ptcha struck me as being more enjoyable as show than as food.

My evening at Jelly Jacob’s was an enjoyable experience and opened my eyes as to the variety of flavors and textures that ptcha can offer. The service was excellent, and Aspict’s joviality was infectious. However, when I got the bill I was shocked to see how small plates can add up to a big price tag. The six small plates cost me $978, plus $25 for the martini. But the Valvoline service only cost $89.95.

Jelly Jacob’s Ptcha’oria is open for lunch service from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday-Friday, and for dinner service From 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. For more information or to make reservations visit www.jellyjacobs.com. All visits to Jelly Jacob’s come with free parking with an oil change at Valvoline.

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