One might be forgiven for thinking that the last creamy drops from yesteryear’s soda shop have long since been wiped clean from Formica countertops. But one intrepid New York transplant has enlivened the genre in DC at her space in Union Market: Gina Chersevani, owner, chef and master mixologist of Buffalo & Bergen, which also happens to have a menu featuring bagels and knishes plucked from Jewish deli heaven.
Named after the intersection of two streets in Brooklyn, Buffalo & Bergen occupies prime real estate at Union Market, a year-round indoor market where sellers offer everything from Thai coconut gelato and infused olive oils to upscale housewares and specialty cheeses. More than 40 vendors have set up in the bright, naturally lit, high-ceilinged space, which opened in September 2012.
Buffalo & Bergen, seamlessly blends the old and new. It’s all shiny chrome with a dozen red-vinyl stools sweeping around a refurbished counter. Servers move quickly scooping ice cream, squirting syrup, working the authentic 1930’s soda machine that previously lived at a Woolworth’s and measuring drinks from a full line of liquor.
The homemade soda concoctions arrive in the most contemporary of flavors: grapefruit rosemary, lemon lavender and spiced apple cider are among the dozen-plus options. In tune with the environment, Chersevani rotates flavors with the seasons, sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local farms and markets.
Some flavors even find their way into punches and mixed drinks with names like the Stand and Deliver (spiced rum, maraschino liquor, white grape and citrus) and the Ironic Mustache (tequila blanco, grapefruit-strawberry syrup, rhubarb bitters, seltzer and grapefruit oil).
And of course, there are also classic egg creams, floats and malts, but these aren’t your grandfather’s malts. Just about every drink can be enhanced with alcohol.
Chersevani grew up on Long Island, where her mother worked at a local JCC. Mom often took her daughter to a favorite soda fountain in Brooklyn from her own childhood, where together they savored the atmosphere and bright effervescence of the sodas and egg creams. Since then, she’s blazed a path of cocktail brilliance across DC for several years, including time behind the bar at PS7 and now Hank’s Oyster Bar.
Perhaps the most nostalgic-inducing menu items are the knishes, very nearly out of early twentieth-century Lower East Side Manhattan. Some of the inspiration comes from the mind of friend and fellow chef Jamie Leeds, also of Hank’s. She’s the resident “knisher,” who brings her own New York Jewish upbringing (and her Bubbe’s recipe) into the Buffalo & Bergen kitchen.
But much like the drinks, there’s a twist. The knishes, made by hand in a specialty oven on-site, arrive traditionally enough, puffy and proud atop wax paper in paper boats. These, however, are no mere thick potato-laden bricks meant to feed tired shtetl-dwellers. Instead, the golden-hued goodies come in a rotating cast of five international and unique flavors. Recently, beyond a classic potato-and-onion option, diners had choices like collard greens with feta or short rib or pepperoni, mozzarella and marinara – a decidedly non-kosher alternative (though still redolent of the New York pizzeria).
Since much of Union Market’s business comes at breakfast and brunch, bagels and shmears are also popular choices. Something Chersevani “sorely missed from New York ever since attending Maryland in College Park…a real New York bagel in DC!” Fluffy, but not too chewy, the bagels come with anything from egg and cheese to lox and capers to the Rude Boy: bacon and scallion cream cheese.
There’s nothing as cutting-edge as reimagining much-loved tradition. Now, that reimagination bubbles over with spirited creativity from a chef who proudly exclaims, “What can I say, I’m kind of a pizza bagel [an Italian Jew].” Whenever your weekend takes you to Union Market, stop by B&B for a new taste on old classics. Bubbe would be proud.
Buffalo & Bergen, Union Market, 1309 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Wednesday-Sunday, 11:00 am-8:00 pm.