Ellen Kassoff Gray admits that she and her husband, Todd, love getting geeky when it comes to food history. It’s one of the reasons the couple was interested in developing dishes for the Museum of the Bible’s two dining concepts.
Ellen, who lived in Israel during the ’80s and has long been inspired by the country’s culinary traditions, said they learned about the ways food is represented in the Bible while doing research for “The New Jewish Table,” a book they wrote on how their different upbringings — her Jewish and his Episcopalian — have influenced their cooking.
Her time in Israel, and their research on the cultural aspects of religion, helped spark Milk & Honey, a casual cafe, and Manna, a cafeteria-style restaurant serving Israeli street food, at the museum. The Grays, who opened Equinox, a restaurant focused on Mid-Atlantic traditions and ingredients, downtown in 1999, aren’t new to the museum dining world: They operated Muse Cafe in the Corcoran Gallery of Art for four years.
Opening Friday, the Museum of the Bible — a 430,000-square foot, $500 million project founded by the head of Hobby Lobby Steven Green — features six floors of exhibitions and about 1,000 artifacts that trace the impact and history of the Bible.
Milk & Honey (“What else would a Jewish girl call her cafe?” Ellen says) is located on the museum’s mezzanine level. The small, 70-seat cafe serves coffee and espresso drinks made with beans from Missouri-based Churchill Coffee Company, grab-and-go sandwiches ($9-$11), salads ($7-$10), fresh-squeezed juice and pastries.
Upstairs at Manna, the couple share meals that were influenced by a research trip to Israel. “I got to go in the kitchens with chefs who showed me different styles of tabbouleh and different preparations of lamb and how they delicately use rose water and make their own palm molasses,” Todd says.
Mana’s menu, which is served cafeteria-style and eaten at long communal tables, includes seasonal grain and salads plates ($14.99) which guests can top with a choice of falafel, lamb meatballs with caramelized onion and mint, rotisserie chicken in a yogurt brine or shredded beef short rib in spicy green tahini.
A flatbread station churns out pizza-like dishes ($9.99) topped with such options as creamy labneh with tomatoes and chopped black olives. An outdoor dining area has a “biblical garden,” which grows herbs mentioned in the Bible.
The Grays will also oversee the museum’s banquet hall, which provides sweeping views of the city and will be used for special events.