Vegans grew concerned last month when Gina and Andy Kalish announced the closure of Kal’ish, their six-year-old restaurant in Uptown. But vegans can set aside those fears as the couple prepares to unveil a meat- and dairy-free replacement at 1313 W. Wilson Avenue.
The new restaurant, Sephardic Sisters, will briefly open for a preview over the weekend before a formal launch on Thursday, March 2. The restaurant space underwent cosmetic changes, including fresh coats of eggplant-purple and cream-colored paint.
Business at Kal’ish remained steady through pandemic challenges, says Gina Kalish, but the couple began to feel the restaurant no longer represented their initial vision. Limited walk-in traffic eroded the community atmosphere and the demand for vegetables dwindled in favor of starchy comfort food. “It’s not easy shutting down a business that’s working, but [Kal’ish] just didn’t feel like me anymore,” Gina Kalish says. “I want to be excited about what we’re doing and be very truthful with it.”
In the meantime, Gina Kalish began to refocus on an idea she’d pushed to her mind’s back burner: a casual spot offering “spicy vegan nosh” with significant Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish influences.
Sephardic Jews (Sephardim) are Spanish and Portuguese with origins in the Iberian Peninsula. These communities suffered expulsion, execution, and violent forced conversion to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Survivors fled to countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. As in the case of their Mizrahi counterparts in nations such as Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria, Sephardic Jews have developed cuisines that marry their familial staples to the foods popular in their countries of residence and adapted dishes to meet religious dietary requirements.
Gina Kalish wanted to offer a counterpoint to Sam & Gertie’s, their neighboring vegan Ashkenazi-style deli, the new restaurant presents a different style of Jewish dining with a menu of golden rice boxes with falafel and grape leaves; smooth hummus loaded with vegetables, fresh miso, and herbs; and nearly a dozen salatim, an umbrella term for a diverse array of salads, dips, and spreads.
“My culinary love lies in fresh, vibrant, raw food,” she says. “I was born in Mexico City but my lineage is Spanish and Italian. In the past when I traveled to the Mediterranean, Israel, and North Africa, it really opened my eyes — this [food] is what I love and eat, this is my diet.”
In the minds of many Americans, the Ashkenazi-style deli — a haven for meaty corned beef sandwiches and fried potato latkes — represents Jewish food. Long-running Chicago institutions like Manny’s and the Bagel have woven the food of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into the daily lives of locals, evoking cozy nostalgia even among the city’s non-Jewish majority. But Jews are a diasporic people with communities across the globe, each with a distinctive culinary approach.
Gina Kalish isn’t Jewish but her great-grandfather was a Spanish Jew. She’s inspired by that history and the parallel to her husband’s background. Her husband doesn’t have an ethnic connection to the cuisine but instead draws on childhood memories of eating with his Jewish and Muslim Iraqi neighbors, some of whom procured grape leaves from a vine-covered wall at his Hebrew school.
“I had a bad habit of hovering around people when they were making food, so I learned to make falafel and grape leaves and baba ghanoush at a young age,” Andy Kalish says.
Gina Kalish, an avid baker, will experiment with desserts like orange and rose blossom baklava cheesecake and tahini halva fudge brownies at Sephardic Sisters. They’ll also offer teas, including coriander iced tea and sumac sweet tea, and hope to add a juice bar in the spring.
Sephardic Sisters, 1313 W. Wilson Avenue, scheduled to open Thursday, March 2.