Growing up in Montreal, Stewart Woodman thought of the thin, honey-sweetened and seeded Montreal bagel as the epitome of Jewish food. That, and the smoked meat with yellow mustard from Schwartz's deli.
Now as the executive chef of Shiloh, a forthcoming makeover of the kosher Prime Deli in St. Louis Park, Woodman is digging deeper into Jewish cuisine. He's looking through a historic lens that dates back to some of the earliest arrivals of Jews in North America in the 17th century, and considering what they might have been eating.
"Jewish deli fare is interesting and it's great, and on the other hand, I feel like there's so much more that can be done in the context of kosher and in the context of Jewish food," said Woodman, a James Beard Award semifinalist who is well known in the Twin Cities fine-dining world as the chef behind the now-closed restaurants Levain and Heidi's.
Though he doesn't usually eat kosher — that is, according to Jewish dietary rules — Woodman is viewing the constraints as an exciting culinary challenge. Shiloh will not have any dairy on the menu, for one thing.
"As an artist, there's always a canvas that has an edge to it. It can be described as a limitation, or as a horizon," he said. Cooking within the limits of what's kosher "opens up a whole different perspective of what ingredients I'm using and how I'm using them, and that's really fascinating."
The menu at Shiloh will focus on steaks, plus "some stuff I've played with in the past," he said. "I have a love affair with beets and chicken liver." He also plans to explore the cuisine of different ethnic groups within American Jewry. Sephardic Jews who descended from communities in Spain and Portugal were the first Jewish settlers in North America, and Woodman is working on his version of a Sephardic Sabbath stew called dafina.
The seven-year-old Prime Deli brought Woodman in as a consultant about six months ago, and the relationship grew, Woodman said. He's now a managing partner of the restaurant at 4224 Minnetonka Blvd., its catering business, and the neighboring grocery store Kosher Spot, which will also get an update in the coming months.
The name Shiloh is an ancient Hebrew word that refers to a Biblical town known for its tranquil nature. It is also a word with significance in some Native American communities, Woodman said. "Shiloh has beautiful meaning and we are inspired to create a beautiful gathering place."
Woodman, who is also a carpenter, is doing some of the woodwork for the redesign himself. The new look for the space will include an overflow dining room that will be a venue for wine dinners, tasting menus and cooking classes "where I can be taught by some of the bubbes [grandmothers] in the neighborhood," he said.
Prime Deli is closing Aug. 31, with Shiloh opening four to six weeks later. Prime Deli's catering division is moving to a different location, and Woodman hopes the transition will be seamless for the local institutions and families that need kosher meals, particularly the popular rotisserie chicken and challah.
"We have a community that relies on us and that doesn't have a lot of other options. We intend to make sure we live up to our responsibility," he said.
That said, he stressed that Shiloh is a restaurant for everyone. "We're not looking necessarily to just appeal to the folks who keep kosher. We're looking to create a great restaurant that happens to be kosher."