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Jewish Journal

A Taste of Tunisia Comes to Melrose

by Gaby Wenig

May 20, 2004 | 8:00 pm

When Cedric Marmet lived in Paris, he watched the crowds line up outside Place L'entrecote, a famous tiny restaurant with a limited menu.

"You had no choice there," said Marmet, relaxing in the cozy dining room of his new kosher French-style bistro, Greta's. "There was one kind of wine, and one kind of meat, and there was a line outside like at Pink's [hotdog stand] -- but this was an expensive place."

It's a formula that Marmet is trying to emulate in his Melrose Avenue restaurant. Named for his wife of four months, Greta Pinto, who also helps out with the cooking, Greta's pays homage to the Parisian bistros that Marmet loved so much. The resturant offers a Tunisian menu of extremely fresh, tasty and hearty food served in a setting made intimate by its rustic earth-toned colors and through the soft glowing light from candles on the table and wall votives. Greta's has a dining room of only 34 seats, and its produce is bought from local vendors and then prepared a-la-minute, to order.

"To provide good food, you need to have a small menu and a small place," said Marmet, 31, who dreamed of opening a restaurant for most of his life.

Greta's serves specialties from Marmet's native country, Tunisia, and it lays claim to being the first kosher Tunisian restaurant in the United States. Judging from the fare at Greta's, Tunisian dishes are made up of a deceptively simple lot of ingredients -- like olive oil, garlic, lemon and sea salt, which is used to flavor lightly blanched haricot verts (French string beans) endive or fennel. Diners are greeted with an array of salads at their table, like tomatoes and bell peppers cooked with garlic and oil, potatoes cooked with cumin seeds and harissa -- a Tunisian condiment made up of dried pepper, garlic and olive oil.

But there are more complicated menu items, too, like the fricasse, which is a lightly fried puff of homemade dough filled with fresh tuna, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and hard-boiled eggs, and the merguez, a homemade spicy sausage, which, in an Mediterranean-inspired take on the American classic hotdog, Marmet serves grilled, in a baguette, with harissa and french fries.

"We use lots of cumin, and fennel, a lot of paprika, peppers, tomatoes. It is a very colorful cooking," Marmet said.

Marmet and Pinto opened Greta's a few months ago, hoping that Jewish Angelenos would be bold enough to think about trying new taste sensations, like meats and eggs -- a common combination in Tunisia -- that Marmet cooks in his Hamburger du Chef, a $12.95 burger served with an sunny-side-up egg.

"We took all our savings and put everything [into the restaurant]," he said. "The day we opened we had nothing, and we counted on the money we made in the opening to buy the goods for the next day."

Now Greta's gets a steady stream of diners for lunch and dinner, and on Fridays, people come to buy Marmet's homemade couscous for Shabbat. His place is a hit with members of Los Angeles' French-speaking community, who use Greta's for gastronomic doses of North Africa.

In the coming months, Marmet plans on renovating the dining room, giving it a polished concrete floor, dark red walls and a high ceiling so it will look even more like the French bistros he admires so much. But he'll rely on word of mouth to get the message out to the community that the place is kosher.

"I don't want to put kosher in big," he said. "I don't want pictures of rabbis everywhere. I want this place to be a little part of France."

Greta's is located at 7168 Melrose Ave. For reservations, call (323) 954-0755.

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