Chagall Bistro, the new French kosher restaurant that was previously Belleville, jumped into their first brunch this past Sunday. Though there were some of the usual hiccups as both front and back of house eased into the new menu (and the time change), the tables filled up with big parties and families from around the neighborhood.
When I met with owners Dan and Sonia Halimi in the gap between brunch and dinner, they and their staff were excitedly preparing for a visit from Marty Markowitz. The first week of business was closing out well.
The transition from Belleville to Chagall, and from classical French to French kosher, happened over the course of a week-long closure which ended on February 28. The reopening has struck a chord in the community, sparking a heated dialogue about the switch to a kosher menu, its commercial viability, and the motivations behind the decision.
It’s the sort of attention that was absent from the initial transition, back in March 2012, when Dan and Sonia left their lives in Paris to take over the Park Slope bistro.
The decision was hasty and impassioned. Dan worked in restaurants in Paris when he was younger, and had harbored a dream of returning to the culinary world ever since. Sonia wanted to move to New York, unsure of where exactly to go and how to get there. It was Sonia’s father, living in Huntington, Long Island, who got the tip that a French restaurant in Park Slope was up for sale, and who suggested the two check it out.
“We came, thinking it would just be something crazy, just to look at it, and then that would be it,” Sonia recalls. “And we fell in love with the place. We fell in love with the neighborhood. We fell in love with Brooklyn. The people are so warm. There’s tons of stuff for the kids. It’s such a diverse neighborhood.”
“It worked out perfectly,” Dan adds.
They returned to France, and decided to make an offer. Within two weeks, they had completely upset the lives they had in Paris (Sonia at the time was working as a journalist; Dan in real estate). They closed the sale on March 19 and were open that same night for dinner. Sonia traveled back and forth to set up paperwork with the vendors to oversee the transition, while Dan managed the Paris end of the move. The family was officially living in Brooklyn by April.
They decided to keep the Belleville name because it, coincidentally, held personal meaning for them. Dan was born and raised in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, and their son was attending a school in Belleville before they moved. It resonated.
As months passed, though, they began to realize the consequences of this decision: for the most part, neighbors were unaware that any change had taken place. Business struggled.
“We came and we really needed the place to continue,” Sonia says. “Already we had brought a new chef. We also had no backup; pretty much, we put everything we had into the sale. It was tough. We didn’t want to make too many changes in the beginning. It was a mistake.”
To revitalize the restaurant, the couple returned to an idea they’d kept in the back of their minds since the beginning.
“In Paris we have something like 300 kosher restaurants for one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world,” Dan says. “And to see here how few kosher options we have in Brooklyn, where there is such a huge Jewish community, it was really surprising. So I said to my wife, we are French, we know the French food. We are Jewish. Why not mix both?”
So the duo found a new chef (Jean-Claude Teulade, veteran of the famed French restaurant La Côte Basque) and took the opportunity to rename and redecorate. In keeping kosher, the restaurant is closed Fridays and Saturdays. The response to this news has been largely skeptical, much to Dan and Sonia’s surprise.
“For us we felt it would never be a problem to add something different to the neighborhood, because we feel like that’s what the neighborhood is all about,” Sonia says. “It’s really a mix of everything.”
Sonia emphasizes the importance of variety and celebrates niche environments. She loves Pork Slope, for instance, though she personally can’t eat most (if not all) of the menu. She points to our vegan options as well.
“We understand that some people feel strongly about the fact that we’ll be closed Friday night and most of Saturday nights. I don’t want to turn people away, and I hope they’ll try the food during the week. If they’re willing to give it a try, we feel very good about our new chef and our new menu.”
But it hasn’t been just negative feedback. Kosher communities around the borough have expressed excitement for a chance to dine out in a different neighborhood, and Jewish communities within Park Slope have responded well.
“We’re finding that in Park Slope, there was this need,” Sonia says. “Regulars come in and say, ‘All that time, we were only ordering the fish!’ and we had no idea. Or people will come in and say, ‘We don’t keep kosher, but our family does.’ It’s nice to have another option.”
“Kosher food is still food,” Dan adds. “In fact, now, we are more French than before. We have the new French chef, who’s made a completely French menu. It may not be classic French, and it is a challenge for him to work without dairy, but it’s true. We are more French than before.”
As of now Chagall is closed both Friday and Saturday, but they’ll open Saturday nights from September to March, when Shabbat ends early. They’re also toying with the idea of opening the lounge for a younger crowd on late Saturday nights over the summer, offering music and wine. But those decisions are still a bit away.
“We’re just trying our best,” Sonia says. “We’re trying to keep this place going, now especially with this new concept, which we feel so good about. And if people have any questions about our decisions or anything, we’re very happy to explain and talk to everyone.”
“We welcome feedback,” Dan adds. “We want reviews. But come in! Try the food.”
Chagall Bistro, 330 Fifth Street at Fifth Avenue, (718) 832–9777, open for dinner Sunday through Thursday at 5 p.m., brunch on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m..