By Cindy Mindell
“The biggest compliment we get is that it’s a Cheers-like atmosphere, like eating around our dining room table,” he says of Soosh, the Japanese bistro that has graced the Stamford Plaza Hotel since November.
Apart from sharing the iconic Stamford Jewish surname, Lieberman is the son of Rabbi Abraham Lieberman z”l, an educator and director of Judaic Studies at Bi-Cultural Day School in the ‘60s and again in the early ‘80s. (Sen. Lieberman was known to Lieberman and his six siblings as “Uncle Joe” when the family lived in town, although they are not related.) Married in 1986, Lieberman and his family lived in Florida before relocating four years ago to Stamford, where his mom still lives and teaches at Bi-Cultural.
Just four months after Soosh’s debut, fans have already staked out their regular tables. And in that short time, the restaurant has not only drawn diners from as far away as Hartford and New Haven, but is already known as a hub of the local Jewish community. Soosh has partnered with Jewish Family Service on a fundraiser, hosted two UJA Greenwich events, and is working on programs with the Stamford JCC and JCC Greenwich. It’s where Stamford NCSY teens gather for their weekly “Soosh and Shmooze” get-together and where Friendship Circle young adults with special needs and their parents recently enjoyed a “roll your own” event. The space is often filled with the music of “Jazz Rabbi” Greg Wall of Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport.
“Soosh is about being able to do and give to the community,” says Lieberman, who gave up his career as a CPA to work for the restaurant full-time. “We get so much from giving. It’s made all this work worthwhile.”
That work started just a year ago, when the Liebermans approached the hotel owners, Orthodox Jews from Montreal, Canada, with the idea that the heavily Jewish clientele would appreciate a kosher restaurant. The owners agreed but didn’t want to take on the task themselves.
So the Liebermans did.
“I said, ‘What kind of food can you put in that people enjoy, and that’s healthy and universal?’” recalls Lieberman, a self-dubbed “professional sushi-eater” whose work-related travel introduced him to kosher sushi restaurants throughout the world. The choice was obvious and, to serve the widest possible clientele, the Liebermans opted for a Kof-K Kosher Supervision certification.
The restaurant came together quickly. After the lease was secured in June, the Liebermans hired a Miami-based interior designer and Israel-based branding specialist, who worked together via Skype. A hotel storage space was gutted and transformed by early August. With breaks for the High Holidays and Operation Protective Edge, which took the Israeli brander away for IDF reserve duty, the Liebermans secured a Certificate of Occupancy on Nov. 7 and opened the next evening.
Aside from nurturing an appreciation for Japanese cuisine, Ari Lieberman didn’t know much about putting together a sushi restaurant. He started out with a couple of advantages: his late uncle was the proprietor of the renowned Moshe Peking, one of the first kosher Chinese restaurants in New York. And he wasn’t afraid to ask a lot of questions.
Lieberman says that choosing a name was the most difficult task. The Liebermans’ seven children, aged 15 to 26 – otherwise known as “The Committee” – were in on the design process. One mentioned that “soosh” is slang for sushi, a claim confirmed after checking UrbanDictionary.com. But Soosh.com is owned by a Long Island band; and so, another member of The Committee, who works in marketing, came up with SooshCT.com.
The Liebermans canvassed sushi restaurant owners throughout the region and learned that their customers’ favorite menu items conveniently comprise only kosher ingredients. Ari used a vegetarian friend as a subject to help design toothsome fish-free dishes. The Liebermans hired a sushi chef who designed a simple opening-day menu of sushi and sashimi. But six weeks before Soosh’s planned debut, the chef was faced with a family emergency and pulled out. Through a lead from the owners of Pearl East Restaurant in Stamford (which burned down in May), the Liebermans found Master Chef Nima, a Japan-trained expert who would build a team of four chefs and craft Soosh’s signature “experience + sushi” menu.
Centered around sushi and fish, the selection is a mix of traditional Japanese dishes and chef-created innovations designed to appeal to kosher and non-kosher patrons alike, and also accommodates food allergies and sensitivities.
The eatery has become a destination for kosher diners who otherwise would travel to New York for high-end fare. Customers tell Ari that they no longer eat out at non-kosher restaurants since Soosh’s arrival.
But for the Liebermans, opening Soosh is also a way to strengthen Jewish Stamford. Ari says he’s asked whether the restaurant is in competition with the three other kosher dining options in Stamford – Navaratna, Mike’s Center Café at the Stamford JCC, and Six Thirteen, whose proprietors all frequent one another’s enterprises.
“Every kosher establishment that survives enhances the community,” he says. “If we all work to keep growing it, we’ll all thrive.”