(New York Jewish Week) — New York City has gained another classic corner Jewish restaurant, this time at the intersection of St. Marks and Carlton Avenues in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Gertrude’s, on a quiet, tree-laden block, opened earlier this summer. It’s the latest offering from restaurateurs Nate Adler, 33, and Rachel Jackson, 34, the couple behind Gertie, the popular Jewish diner in South Williamsburg that opened in 2019.
“At its base, it’s a neighborhood bistro,” Adler told the New York Jewish Week about a sensibility he calls “Jew-ish.” “It brings together my traditional Jewish upbringing with a more modern sensibility.”
The couple’s original spot, Gertie, is a daytime, Jewish-inflected eatery. Specializing in classic deli sandwiches with a modern twist, like a turkey pastrami club with a “jalapeno schmear” and chicken schnitzel sandwich with “dilly cukes pickled cabbage,” the restaurant closes at 4 p.m. each day. Adler considers Gertie “an amazing homage to Russ & Daughters with full service.”
Gertrude’s, which opened in late June, is a more sophisticated, nighttime destination, with cocktails and menu items like a warm challah roll with duck butter — an appetizer — and Nicoise salad with smoked fish.
Both restaurants have the same namesake: Adler’s Jewish maternal grandmother, Gertrude Aronow. The dedication is in honor of the spirit she imbued into every room she entered. Grandma Gertrude, said Adler, was “a really colorful and eccentric human being who was the life of the party.”
In order to bring Gertrude’s to life, Adler and Jackson brought in a third partner: Eli Sussman, a chef who has Jewish cred under his belt, thanks to his work at Brooklyn’s Mile End Delicatessen, which specializes in Montreal-style Jewish deli eats, and Samesa, a Middle Eastern counter joint in Midtown.
Ahead of Gertrude’s opening, the trio spent months going back and forth about how to execute their Jewish bistro concept. “We spent a ton of time trying to be very cognizant of not going too far in one direction — not being too conceptual, not being only appealing to this sort of broad-reaching neighborhood,” Adler said. “We wanted to keep it really simple.”
Adler also said that rather than opting for a more Sephardic or Israeli feel — with familiar items like pita and hummus — they wanted to “push the Ashkenazi tradition” at the restaurant. As such, Gertrude’s menu has inventive items like a burger available to order “Reuben-style” (a beef patty topped with melted swiss, Russian dressing and sauerkraut in between a challah roll), and a black & white seven-layer cake, a mashup of two popular Jewish desserts: black and white cookies and seven-layer cake.
The Jewish theme extends to the drinks menu, designed by Jackson, who previously served as the wine and beverage director at Williamsburg’s modern classic Marlow & Sons. A particular standout is the Seder Plate Margarita (its ingredients include parsley and saltwater), as well as the Dirty Gertie, a martini made with pickle brine.
Adler and Jackson, who married in August 2021, come by their devotion to New York City throwbacks honestly: Both were born and raised on the Upper West Side. Although the pair grew up 10 blocks from each other, they didn’t meet until they worked at the Danny Meyer restaurant, Blue Smoke, during Adler’s stint there from 2011 to 2014 (Jackson’s was from 2013 to 2015). They later began dating when they reunited at Huertas, a tapas restaurant co-owned by Adler in the East Village that closed its doors for good on Aug. 12.
Adler told the New York Jewish Week that he was raised “traditionally” Jewish: His family celebrated Shabbat every week and he grew up attending B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, where he had his bar mitzvah. Both of Adler’s parents are first-generation Americans, his paternal grandparents Holocaust refugees from Germany.
Adler’s decision to enter the restaurant world stems from two long-held interests: His consistent desire to push himself to do something creative as well as his passion for food from a young age. “When I was in college I read Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ and read the line about nine-out-of-10 restaurants failing in the first year,” Adler recalled. “I wanted to be the one-out-of-10.”
There’s a family connection to the restaurant business, too: Adler said his great-grandfather owned a coffee import/export business in Darmstadt, Germany, and there was a cafe attached called Gerbruder Adler.
Five years after opening Huertas in 2014, Adler and two partners launched Gertie at 357 Grand St.; Jackson came on as a partner and director of operations during the pandemic. “Gertie wasn’t specifically Jewish when we opened it, it was more like New York City food,” Adler said, noting that the “daytime cafe” concept evolved during the pandemic. “Only recently has it become more focused and concentrated on the Jewish diner idea.”
The shift, said Adler, was a “salient” one, calling the decision to home in on the Jewish theme a “very successful pivot.”
With Jackson on board (and the other two partners, Will Edwards and Flip Biddelman, out) the couple introduced bagels to Gertie’s menu; the popular carbs were hand-rolled and kettle boiled in house. As the long months of shutdown continued, they devised ways to help local Jews celebrate important holidays, selling “Hanukkah at Home” boxes and to-go Passover seders, helping to put the eatery on more solid ground in the midst of the pandemic.
“Passover has been our most successful holiday year-in and year-out, doing these to-go seders, and we sell them out every year,” Adler said.
That same sharp sense of brand definition was on Adler’s mind when creating Gertrude’s. After their offer was accepted at 605 Carlton Ave., Adler reached out to a few different people he knew for the chef role, including Sussman (another Prospect Heights resident, by way of Detroit).
“Eli and I had been friendly, and I remembered that he worked in or lived in the neighborhood and it turns out that he was interested in the gig,” Adler said of their partnership. “It kind of happened very quickly after that.”
Sussman was eager to build on what he’d learned during his tenure at Mile End, where he initially started off as a prep cook.
“I just always really wanted to be involved with a restaurant that sort of had those [Ashkenazi] types of flavors on their menu,” Sussman told the New York Jewish Week. “As someone who’s culturally Jewish, I think it’s exciting that I can put certain things on the menu, like beef tongue, that might not be something that everyone has had a lot of experience with, but really hearkens back to Lower East Side, old-school Jewish appetizing delicatessen-style cuisine.”
Adler hopes his new restaurant will continue to enjoy a certain buzz, and that people will travel from Manhattan to dine at his establishment. But first and foremost, Gertrude’s is a restaurant that seeks to serve its community.
“Our number-one goal and priority was to create a menu that was sort of neighborhood-first,” he said. “We wanted to have this type of place where you could come once a week, get your burger, get your chicken or your schnitzel, and be really satisfied.”
“Or you could come and have a salad and a glass of wine at the bar — there are a lot of different experiences for everybody,” he added. And by “everybody” Adler means everybody: He wants Gertrude’s to be the kind of place customers can feel comfortable perched at the bar for a first date, or sitting down to a long meal with their parents, or braving a restaurant meal with a toddler (this is Prospect Heights, after all).
So far, the Jewish bistro has been met with enthusiasm, with folks lining up to dine at the restaurant right when it opens at 5 p.m., something he called “awesome and also scary, because it means we have to be completely ready to go right at 5 o’clock.”
But overall Adler seemed thrilled with the turnout. “It’s amazing to be busy at 5:30,” he said.