(New York Jewish Week) — Dining out in New York City is expensive — especially at a kosher restaurant. But Mocha Burger Lux, a forthcoming Midtown restaurant, is upping the ante with its “24K Gold Plated Golden-Burger,” which has an eye-popping price: $175.
The 12-ounce short-rib burger is wrapped in leaves of real, 24-karat gold. It’s grilled and topped with black Australian truffle, crunchy onions and chips, house-made sauce and pickles. The dish is brought to the table in a custom hand-carved wood treasure chest, which will be opened at the table, triggering a smoke show and illuminating its contents.
“You’re not paying for the piece of meat,” proprietor Naftali Abenaim told the New York Jewish Week. “You’re paying for the experience.”
Kosher restaurants have undergone a renaissance over the past 15 years or so, according to Elan Kornblum, founder of the 80,000-member Great Kosher Restaurants Foodies group on Facebook. Social media has upped the ante, he said, and kosher diners — like all diners — have higher expectations than years past. “The palate of consumers is more educated and sophisticated, demanding more,” Kornblum said. “Everyone has a phone, is a blogger, and likes to post.”
“People don’t just go out to eat anymore — that’s like old-school cuisine,” said Abenaim, whose other restaurants include the 70-seat Mocha Burger, a casual burger restaurant bordering Soho, and his more upscale Mocha Red Steakhouse and Mixology Bar, which he opened in 2021, just south of Union Square. “You’re walking into a theatrical experience.”
Mocha Red, for example, has featured guest DJs, Broadway performers who serenade diners at their tables, and even fire dancers, who adroitly spiral through the room while maneuvering flaming props. The nightclub-like decor is anything but boring, too: Guests dine under portraits of movie stars, which are offset by murals by Miami street artist “Mr. Exclusive” depicting the likes of the Pink Panther, Scrooge McDuck and Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags.
And now, with his latest restaurant, which is expected to open later this month, Abenaim is aiming to draw diverse crowds to the 3,500-square-foot, two-story space at 4 East 46th Street. Here, patrons are greeted by a life-size “Companion” figure from popular graffiti artist KAWS, who stands at attention in front of a highly Instagrammable pink floral wall. With its focus on hamburgers and steaks, Abenaim hopes that Mocha Burger Lux will be a destination for Midtown workers for lunch as well as happy hour. “We’re the only kosher restaurant with a real happy hour,” he claims. “There is nothing in the area to go to — we’re gonna have the Jewish and the non-Jewish crowd.”
When asked who he thinks will order the new restaurant’s 24K Gold Plated Golden-Burger, “people who want to be seen,” Abenaim said. “We live in a world where everybody wants to be different. Everybody wants to be seen, to feel special.”
Abenaim knows a thing or two about generating buzz. Being a restaurateur was a later-in-life switch for the 47-year-old, who took a circuitous route to the restaurant industry, acquiring skills as a sofer (scribe), a mashgiach (kosher supervisor), a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a cantor. He was also a one-time dental student, an accomplished spin instructor and, perhaps most notably of all, a hatmaker to the stars.
As the proprietor of Naftali Millinery, his creations were available at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman’s, and customers included Eva Longoria, Pink, Charlize Theron and Sharon Stone, among others. He received a “Milli Award” in 2004 and 2006, naming him Hat Designer of the Year in an industry-wide international design competition.
The successful business had unlikely origins: When he was a junior at Yeshiva University, Abenaim’s father, a Montreal-based furrier, sent him to the garment district on an errand. While there, Abenaim — who was the costume designer for YU’s Dramatics Society, having learned to sew from his father — purchased 18 unadorned “hat bodies” and some bows and ribbons, with the intention of creating a selection of fedora hats for his wife.
He was pleased enough with his creations to set up a rack in his father’s booth at a Javits Center trade show. He hoped for a little interest from the Orthodox community, thinking that observant women might favor his stylish chapeaus. Much to his surprise, he was approached by a cruise line, which purchased the entire collection, placing a six-figure order, and his hat business took off from there.
Fashion is fickle, however. After 14 successful years, with the demand for women’s fedoras waning, Abenaim made the unlikely switch from hats to hamburgers, which he had learned to cook from his paternal grandmother whom he called “Mémé.” Mémé hailed from Melilla, an autonomous Spanish enclave in North Africa, and he credits her with helping to raise him while growing up in his Modern Orthodox family in Montreal.
“The best chefs have started in their grandmas’ kitchen,” said Abenaim, recalling how his grandmother taught him to cook “hamburguesas” as a boy. He credits his Mémé with inspiring his passion for food and the culinary arts. As a young man, he had worked as a busboy at a French pastry shop in Quebec, advancing quickly to apprentice, and since then, he said, he dreamed of having his own place. Of course it had to be strictly kosher.
Abenaim’s first foray into the kosher restaurant business was in 2009, when he opened a bistro and patisserie in Teaneck, New Jersey, near where he lives. He named the dairy restaurant Mocha Bleu, after the blue and brown jacquard wallpaper that adorned the walls.
Since then, Abenaim has focused exclusively on the fleishig (meat) side, opening Mocha Burger in Soho in 2015. At the time, kosher restaurants in Manhattan were clustered uptown, so his restaurant was something of a rarity. Other Mocha restaurants followed, including the Upper East Side’s 18-seat Mocha Burger Express, which has since closed.
Abenaim told the New York Jewish Week that he imports his beef from Uruguay, because he cannot source kosher hormone- and antibiotic-free, free range, grass-fed cattle within the U.S. He spent nine months experimenting to come up with the special short rib blend he uses for his burgers, and his restaurants also grind their own meat.
Abenaim’s establishments are also embracing the trend of offering what appears to be the unkosher combination of milk and meat. They don’t: All of Abenaim’s restaurants are certified by the Orthodox Union, but he’ll pair meat with accompaniments like mock cheese, made of coconut or almond milk, or bacon made from lamb or beef. Although such combinations are technically kosher according to Jewish law, they are not universally embraced by observant Jews.
Kornblum points out that people often want what they cannot have — and therefore many kosher diners are intrigued by something that so closely resembles that which is forbidden to them. “We’ll all go because we want to try it and see what’s the appeal,” he said.
“There’s a transition of mentalities that’s happening in today’s world and it’s going to take time,” Abenaim said. “The fact that it’s a ‘no-no,’ that’s disappearing. People want it.”
Kornblum sees Abenaim’s newest establishment as a prime example of how newer kosher restaurants want to see themselves within the larger New York City culinary community. They want to say “We’re not just a great restaurant, we’re a great restaurant that happens to be kosher,” he said.
Abenaim concurs. When patrons leave Mocha Burger Lux, he said, “I expect them to say, ‘When can I come back?’”