Westchester Is Embracing Fusion Cuisine Culture

Why some county restaurateurs are merging diverse cooking traditions into singular, congruent menus.

A mash-up is most commonly used to describe a creative work that takes disparate elements and blends them together. But a mash-up is also an apt description of a restaurant whose menu features both latkes and tacos — or, one where both mac ’n’ cheese and eggplant meatballs can be eaten as appetizers. And if you’re heading out to dinner, and one person has a hankering for a lobster roll, and another is craving pizza, Westchester has the restaurant match for you.

A number of county restaurants are taking their customers on culinary tours around the world. Pleasantville’s Falafel Taco serves up food from Chef Jonathan Langsam’s Jewish upbringing, alongside the flavors of wife/co-owner Rosie Hernandez’s Mexican heritage. Before opening, he thought of doing two separate menus, but “my eldest daughter said we should mash it up and we came up with Falafel Taco.” The name explains what patrons are going to find in the restaurant. “Millennials in the area aren’t afraid to try new things. Even people who say it’s a weird concept will give you the opportunity to have a conversation with them,” Langsam says.

Photo by KatE schlientz

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DonJito’s salmon tacos with mango-habañero salsa

Tacos are also on the menu at Mamaroneck’s DonJito, but don’t look for typical sides. Jeffrey Rosen, director of operations and finance for the Jito Hospitality Group, which includes Med-Mex PopoJito in Scarsdale, describes the cuisine as Nuevo Latino. “It does take a little bit of educating to get people to understand what you’re doing when they see tacos on the menu but no chips and salsa,” Rosen admits. Customers’ initial expectations might not meet the reality of the restaurant, he continues. “But people who go out to eat on a fairly regular basis have an understanding as to what fusion is
all about.”

Joe D’Angelo, co-owner of West Harrison’s Copper House, echoes that sentiment. The space formerly housed Italian restaurant Trevi, and D’Angelo says there’s still an Italian influence to some of the dishes on his American comfort food menu. “An American menu gives you the luxury of playing around with different cultures,” he says, noting that fusion doesn’t have to be intimidating to customers. “We can be a little different, but there is some familiarity to what we offer.”

Photo courtesy of The Rex Pizza & Lobster

Lobster on pizza? You bet, at The Rex in Hartsdale​.

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Two restaurants in Hartsdale offer that same combination. At The Rex Pizza & Lobster, “we serve two quintessential foods that people love,” explains Chef Charlie Keller. The restaurant applies hybrid dining not only to the food, but also to its concept. “We call it fine food meets fast dining.” While the lobster roll had been perfected at The Rex’s sister restaurant on Long Island, Keller worked on his pizza dough for more than a year to make sure both the lobster and the pizza would be equally delicious.

Moving from all-American favorites to a more international bent, Chef Brian Sernatinger of Único, says not labeling his food as a specific cuisine, “frees us to cook what we want and to put a twist on all our dishes.” He describes the food at Único as international, saying he brings in ingredients and dishes from a wide variety of countries. “People in Westchester have sophisticated palates and are pretty adventurous.”

Sernatinger likes when customers engage in dialogues about the food. “I may put chayote squash on the menu or add some Mexican fried chilies to a dish, and we look to solicit feedback from our customers, especially repeat ones.” While you’ll find Thai mussels on the menu, “I leave certain things, such as sushi, for the masters,” he says. D’Angelo of Copper House agrees. “Even though we serve a fusion of different cultures, I’m not competing with a sushi guy or [trying to] master Greek cuisine — our menu is well thought out.”

“Millennials in the area aren’t afraid to try new things. Even people who say it’s a weird concept will give you the opportunity to have a conversation with them.”
—Jonathan Langsam, chef, Falafel Taco

Having a well-thought-out menu and sticking to what the restaurant does best is also the formula behind Gaucho Burger. Founder Moises Mera opened in White Plains after finding success for his Argentinean-themed food at area farmers’ markets. “I describe the place as a burger company serving more than a burger,” Mera says. The fusion comes from spice blends and marinades, and Mera notes that Argentinean food has a lot of Italian influences. In addition to burgers, the menu offers fish, steaks, and empanadas.

These chefs aren’t worried about brand identity. “As long as you create something that people want they’ll come in,” says Keller of The Rex. Falafel Taco’s Langsam says, “I don’t worry about the brand — we’re drawing from a wide range of communities, and people like the variety.” And Rosen of Jito Hospitality notes, “It’s nice when customers come in saying they didn’t know what to expect and leave saying this is just what the area needed.”

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Abbe Wichman is a Katonah resident who writes about food and drink. Eating at fusion restaurants has definitely broadened her culinary horizons and made her a more adventurous eater.

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