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The interior of Mägo. Mägo

How This East Bay Restaurant’s Passover Seder Menu Blends Jewish and Colombian Cultures

Mägo chef Mark Liberman merges Colombian flavors and dishes with Passover traditions

Growing up, when chef Mark Liberman would attend a Passover seder meal with his Polish-Jewish father and grandparents, the menu didn’t deviate much from the Ashkenazi tradition, he says, citing dishes like matzo ball soup and braised brisket. So while his Oakland restaurant Mägo is influenced by his Colombian mother and his own trips to South America, this year Liberman plans to create a Passover seder tasting menu that will intersect his Latin-influenced approach to food with traditional Jewish dishes.

“Even at my house, we ate a pretty Eastern European-style Ashkenazi seder [dinner], pretty traditional flavors from Poland and Russia,” Liberman says. “But I wanted to explore a little bit more of the Sephardic flavors, and also, there’s a lot of Jews in South America in general.”

After two years of creating more traditional Passover to-go meal kits during the pandemic, Liberman set out this year to serve a Passover tasting menu at the restaurant for the first time. The Passover holiday commemorates the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Passover typically lasts between seven and eight days and begins with one or two nights of ritual feasts known as seders. Liberman knows there are certain things people tend to expect from a seder — like the aforementioned brisket and matzo ball soup — but he’s looking to incorporate South American flavors “without trying to take away from the seder too much.”

Chef Mark Liberman wearing a grey apron and blue shirt.
Chef Mark Liberman.
Mägo

The sample tasting menu Liberman is developing will likely include items from the seder plate, such as bitter herbs in the form of horseradish, called maror, or the sweet relish charoset, made with fruits, nuts, and spices. On Liberman’s menu, there’s an arepa y platano maduro dish; charoset served alongside Mägo’s salsas; beet tartare with pear and horseradish; ajiaco with matzo balls, cilantro and yuca; halibut with adobo, fava beans, spring garlic beurre noisette; beef braised with avocado leaves, dried apricot and mezcal; rhubarb, roasted sesame and strawberry; matzoh toffee; and coconut coquito.

Liberman explains he’s shifting the menu to nudge the dishes outside of those traditional expectations. “There’s a matzo ball-style soup, but we’re interpreting it into an ajiaco, which is a chicken soup from Bogotá,” he says. In another instance, rather than a beef brisket, which Liberman says they’ve traditionally done at his house, at Mägo they’re making a beef shoulder. “Horseradish is a big part of the seder but I didn’t want to just serve a plate of horseradish, obviously,” he adds. “So there’s things like that that I think you kind of have to have.” Similarly, when asked about the charoset, he said it will have the traditional base of apples and nuts, with cinnamon, but diners will also taste additions of cumin and coriander, with some chili.

Liberman is finalizing the last details of Mägo’s Passover seder tasting menu and playing with incorporating a seder plate with the snack. He’s looking to host diners in a more intimate setting at his restaurant, but with beverage pairings, he says the meal will inevitably feel “little different” from the typical experience of eating at home with friends and family. “I still want it to feel like someone celebrating Passover, but maybe just in a different form or slightly highly-elevated formal dining, but where it’s still very fun and approachable for most guests,” Liberman says.

Mägo, located at 3762 Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, will offer its Passover tasting menu (dine-in only) from April 15 through April 23.

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