Nut House Pizza co-owner and self-proclaimed pizza enthusiast Michael Chelst loves nothing more than a good pie. But starting May 15, he and his chefs will be rolling out something entirely different: sushi.
The beloved kosher Rockville outfit is set to unveil an upgraded pizza menu, a renovated interior and an entirely new sushi setup named Sushi7 (named for the Seven Seas). Chelst is quick to note that the spot will still have the same character and charm since its founding in 1983, but sushi will now play as big of a role as the pies.
Chelst’s love of pizza started early. Growing up, he’d do almost anything for that classic crispy crust, fold-in-half-to-eat, burn-your-mouth-a-little New York-style pizza. So eager was he to be a part of Nut House Pizza, one of the first kosher pizza purveyors to open in the Rockville area, that he successfully petitioned the county to work there at age 15.
Until Nut House began its reign, Chelst subsisted on frozen pies to get his kosher pizza fix or enjoyed slices delicately carted back from New York on family visits.
That passion for pies never left him. Last year, 30 years after his first day, Chelst became a partner at the very same shop.
Today, Nut House is still around. The neighborhood has changed, other kosher pizza shops have opened (and closed), but the place has steadfastly remained, supported by its loyal following, shabby casual vibe and family atmosphere.
Yet Nut House, Chelst stated, needed new life and a complete refresh. “It was very much in need of repair,” he says. “I didn’t want to see a place I loved so much and that has been around so long not survive.”
He should know: Chelst owns Char Bar, the kosher restaurant in Washington, DC, as well as the Brooklyn Sandwich Company kosher food truck. He’s always felt the connection to his community, donating food to local Jewish organizations, school and hospitals and driving the truck to support the J Cycle event.
“The community involvement is what I love about the food business,” he said.
Nut House served as Chelst’s promised land whenever he needed a slice. Plus, “as a kid, I always wanted to open up a pizza shop someday,” he recalled.
When he became a partner in the business, Chelst replaced the floors, ceiling and walls; set up a new 80-inch TV; and tore out old equipment to make way for a shiny new kitchen.
Beyond these new toys, the Nut House menu got a full refresh. Chelst was quick to note that the special, much-loved “sweet sauce” for the pizza has stayed the same. It’s a touch on the sweet side, balancing tomatoes’ natural acidic properties and sweetness, proving irresistible to lifelong fans.
The famed fries also survived the refresh. “These are freshly cut potatoes in house,” he says, topped with a proprietary seasoning developed years ago. “It’s what makes Nut House special.”
Still, Chelst realized that fried potatoes and tomato sauce do not a shop make.
“Just being kosher isn’t enough,” he said. “The quality has to be there, too.”
Chelst hired a pizza consultant who studied the craft at culinary institute schooling. New pizza styles reflect contemporary food trends and feature nods to creativity and seasonality. Refreshed options branch well beyond plain cheese. New choices include a mushroom pie topped with marinated and sautéed shiitakes and portobellos and drizzled with pesto, as well as one called Capitano, topped with bright summer vegetables like zucchini and squash.
He wasn’t done, though. Past those pies is Sushi7, the sushi bar.
Like his reading the tea leaves three decades ago, Chelst realized that the area also lacks authentically styled kosher sushi. He and his team brought on a sushi specialist to consult on building a sushi bar. Every morning, Sushi7 will have favorites likes the Philadelphia Roll (using pareve imitation cream cheese), as well as original takes like the Rachel Roll (avocado, spicy tuna, salmon tempura, sriracha mayo). Poke is in the works, too.
Sushi, Chelst revealed, is an entirely different culinary animal than pizza.
“Once you have fish,” Chelst related, “a full-time mashgiach [kashrut supervisor] is required.”
This can be expensive, he notes, but people understand the need for quality and the necessity not to compromise on kashrut standards. While the sushi bar may lack some traditional ingredients (no prawns here), the fish is driven down near daily from a kosher fish purveyor in Baltimore. He’s hired an experienced sushi chef who cooks specialty rice each morning.
“We cannot take the attitude that because it’s kosher, it doesn’t have to be top notch,” Chelst said.
Nut House Pizza, 301-942-5900, 11419 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD, Monday–Wednesday 11:30 am–9 pm, Thursday 11 am–9 pm, Friday 11:30 am–6 pm, Saturday 6 pm–1 am, Sunday 11:30 am–9 pm. Kosher.
Photos courtesy of Michael Chelst.