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On Site: A Burger with a Side of Intrigue

Omri Nahmias

Whether you run with the movers and shakers or just want to chap a nosh while touring the nation’s capital, Char Bar is the place

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

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Char Bar draws a clientele nearly as diverse and exotic as its menu. Where else would you have a chance of meeting Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with their kids, students from nearby George Washington University, Jewish tourists, and local families? (Photos: Eli Greengart)

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isten, I’m here at Char Bar,” my source whispers into his phone, “and I see Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, and a third guy I don’t recognize, Middle Eastern, surrounded by security guards.”

I race downstairs into the balmy street, hail the first cab I find, and give the driver the address of the tony eatery in Washington’s famed Foggy Bottom section, only steps away from the White House. My mind is racing faster than the taxi —the streetlights whiz by as I open the throttle on my speculations.

Who could be meeting with President Trump’s advisor for Mideast negotiations and the US ambassador to Israel, in DC’s only glatt kosher eatery? The ambassador from Bahrain? A Saudi government minister? The administration is preparing to release its long-awaited Middle East peace plan… could this be a strategy session? An early pitch, or a trial balloon?

Within minutes, I’m there. After paying the driver, I bound up to the glass doors of Char Bar, collecting myself as I enter the cool swoosh of air conditioning. I survey the diners seated in the sleek but warm décor until my eyes come to rest on the group.

My hopes are dashed. There are Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, all right — but they’re sitting with Ayoub Kara, a veteran Druze politician who happens to be Israel’s minister of communications. Ho-hum, another meeting with a visiting Israeli official.

Well, since I’m here anyway, I might as well get something to eat.

Despite my disappointment at the scoop that wasn’t, there’s plenty else to be found at Char Bar this night. This unofficial meeting place for the Jewish Who’s Who in Washington opened its doors on L Street nearly four years ago, serving up steaks, burgers, deli sandwiches, and barbecue, as a revamped version of its predecessor, Eli’s, which was more of a traditional Jewish deli.

.

 

Michael Chelst, the restaurant’s operator, joined two years ago. As a foodie and amateur chef myself, I don’t miss this opportunity to ask Michael what the Char Bar house specialty is.

“Probably the pulled barbecue brisket, which comes on a taco,” he says.

The most popular menu item? “That’s got to be the Hickory Burger, our house burger topped with pulled barbecue brisket and onion rings.”

Michael surprises me with a plate of deep-fried edamame drizzled with a sweet-tasting sauce. (Edamame, for the uninitiated, is a Japanese term for soybeans in the pod.) I try to place the sauce, and Michael says it’s a secret recipe — a mixture of soy and teriyaki, with Montreal steak seasoning and other spices. It’s one of Michael’s signature fusion cuisine dishes, like his lamb “bacon” that he uses as one of his hamburger fixings. 

 

Meat & Greet

Char Bar draws a clientele nearly as diverse and exotic as its menu. Where else would you have a chance of meeting Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with their kids, students from nearby George Washington University, Jewish tourists, and local families? During my chat with Michael, I notice Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, a couple of Israeli tourists, and a group that appears not to know (or care) that it’s a kosher establishment.

Aaron Keyak, former communications director for Rep. Jerry Nadler and now a Democratic strategist, is a regular here, and avers that nothing tops Char Bar’s prime rib, accompanied by Shiloh red wine. He laughs that he comes here “a lot,” admitting that he lives nearby.

“When you’re doing business or entertaining friends and family, it’s important to have a place where you can get a good burger, even if they don’t keep kosher, even if they’re not Jewish. Char Bar not only has a nice general area where you can host a business meeting or pitch a client, but if you need to, they have two private rooms. As long as you’re the one picking up the bill, why not go to Char Bar?”

Another repeat customer is lobbyist and public relations consultant Ezra Friedlander. When the New Yorker comes to Washington for a meet-and-greet with a congressman or communal leader, he can always be found with his guests at Char Bar, probably enjoying his favorite, the Texas Toast.

“Absolutely, all the time,” Friedlander enthuses. “As a matter of fact, my guests often don’t even realize it’s a kosher restaurant. At the end of the meal they might ask for coffee, and only when they’re told they can’t have milk do they realize it’s kosher. And then they just say, ‘Oh, wow, this is kosher.’ I mean, they don’t put two and two together until it’s pointed out to them.”

Friedlander adds what most impresses him is that although Char Bar is the only glatt kosher restaurant in town, the staff operate it at a standard “as if they had the most competition in the world.” Needless to say, he has his share of stories about the place.

“I was having dinner here with someone from the Liberian embassy, when I saw Ivanka Trump walk in with her son,” he recounts. “I walked over and introduced myself, and to her credit, Ivanka was very friendly. I told her my wife admires her, and you know, I gave her privacy. I didn’t try to engage her in lengthy conversation because she was there to be with her son, but she was very, very accommodating, more than she needed to be. That’s the kind of fun you have when you walk into Char Bar — you could have a US senator in the booth next to you. You could have a very conservative personality back to back with a very liberal personality.”

  

Grade-A Society

If you show up often enough at Char Bar, you might find that your regular order gets named after you. Thus a quick perusal of the menu turns up such items as the Shemtov Salad (“marinated steak with avocado, tomato over mixed greens, served with mango and sesame dressing”), named for “the rabbi of Capitol Hill”; the Diament Club Sandwich (“homemade smoked turkey breast, crispy pastrami, avocado, lettuce, tomato & chipotle mayo on toasted wheat”), named for OU Advocacy Center executive director Nathan J. Diament; and, in a unique twist, William’s Burger, in honor of William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Why is this last dish unique? Well, besides presenting a clever play on words with the name of a Brooklyn neighborhood, it suits the special dietary needs of Mr. Daroff: He is a vegan. The restaurant developed the meatless option for him under its previous incarnation (if you’ll pardon the term) as Eli’s. I was surprised to learn from Mr. Daroff that vegans often have more options at fleishig restaurants, since not every dish contains meat; whereas nearly every offering at a milchig place has something dairy in it.

Daroff has had working meetings at Char Bar with Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer, Dore Gold, and outgoing Jewish Agency director Natan Sharansky. He further relates that late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia often met renowned attorney Nathan Lewin there for meals.

Michael Chelst’s vantage point as the restaurant’s operator gives him the best view of the famous faces who frequent the eatery.

“I’d say we serve about 40 to 50 congressmen annually,” he surmises. “Naturally, we serve a lot of political figures, such as Ivanka Trump. She doesn’t come only for political meetings. Sometimes, she’ll drop in, just her and her son, for dinner. There could be a White House meeting. Recently, Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, immediately after David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt left for Virginia to visit PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the hospital.”

When asked for his estimate of how often Jared and Ivanka stop by, he demurs somewhat. “They’ve got a busy schedule, but they come here occasionally. We seat them in a private room. They’re usually very easygoing.”

The restaurant makes a private room for Jared and Ivanka?

“It’s not as if Ivanka Trump demanded it,” Michael insists. “It was our idea to give her privacy while she enjoys dinner with her son. You know, they come with half a dozen Secret Service agents… When the room is available, we feel she should have it.”

Char Bar has played host to some contentious Middle Eastern groups: Michael recounts seating Israeli MKs from five different Knesset factions, among others. “We had here representatives from Bayit Yehudi, Likud, the Zionist Camp, and more… all around one table. I don’t know if that happens even in the Knesset!

“And that wasn’t our most unusual event. I remember when the Egyptian ambassador invited a group of chareidim together with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to discuss presenting a posthumous medal to late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. I remember how Rumsfeld waited when the group davened Minchah.”

 

No Chopped Liver Here

We’re still nibbling on the crunchy, flavorful edamame, when a plate of Nachos Brisket lands on the table — freshly fried tortilla chips served with pulled beef, chipotle mayo, and avocado. I take this opportunity to quiz Michael about the thinking behind his distinctive menu.

 

How do you come up with such novel combos?

“I’m constantly trying to tweak things, I play around and come up with new ideas. Usually, my starting point is something prepared well in another way.”

 

What drew you to the restaurant business?

“It’s my passion. You know, I’ve been eating my whole life, and that qualifies me to run a restaurant. But seriously, it’s not the food as much as the people. I love meeting the people who enjoy coming here and who appreciate the fact that there’s a kosher restaurant in DC. It’s fascinating. I’ve catered everything from weddings to a dinner for 90 Muslims who came to break the Ramadan fast. I spend most of my time working with people.”

 

Despite the predominantly frum Jewish clientele, I couldn’t help but notice there’s almost no “heimish” food on the menu. How come?

“We’re not what you call a Jewish restaurant. We don’t have chopped liver here, although we did retain a few diehard favorites — the pastrami, the brisket, stuff like that.”

 

Why no chopped liver?

“We purposely don’t carry it, even though plenty of customers would like it. Chopped liver is something you can always get at home. We don’t want to have commonplace items. We also want to encourage people to try new foods. Most of the menu features items that can’t be easily prepared at home, such as the complexly flavored sauces, or the fresh-ground meat cooked using special techniques.”

 

And do you find that people are adventurous, willing to experiment?

“Yes, people are more open today to learning about new things.”

 

What are the current culinary trends in kosher food?

“A lot of gluten-free and vegetarian. Vegetarian has long been a trend, but gluten-free has definitely become huge.”

 

How do you explain that you’re the only kosher game in town?

“The Jewish community here is very small. Larger Orthodox communities are far away, and the traffic here is terrible. So, to come here from Silver Spring on a weeknight, you’re looking at an hour. With no traffic, you might make it in 40 minutes. We really rely on the locals.

“There is, though, another reason for people to come all the way here from Baltimore, usually on Sundays — shidduch dates. You can make a day trip out of it.” —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 721)

 

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