February 15, 2007
L.A.‘s gourmet kosher makeover
Pricey, elegant restaurants feed the observant community's appetite for upscale dining
The Ikura caviar is red, which indicates that it's kosher -- culled from salmon, not the non-kosher black beluga that comes from sturgeon.
At The Prime Grill on Rodeo Drive, the short ribs are braised for 12 hours and then served with wild mushrooms and spicy mustard. The chopped Wagyu Steak Sliders look like little hamburgers but are eye-openingly delectable, made from hand chopped steak, while the Oh Toro sashimi is smooth and silvery and almost swims down the throat.
At Tierra Sur at the Baron Herzog Winery in Oxnard, venison is one of the most popular dishes, and the white bean soup is topped with "bacon" -- a crisp, salty, flavorful meat that's made from lamb so it will be kosher.
Welcome to Southern California's new world of Gourmet Kosher. As America has fallen in love with food over the last decade, the kosher world has not been too far behind. Kosher products and kosher gourmet ingredients abound, as do kosher cookbooks and cooking classes and a general interest in food, entertaining and all it entails. The kosher market has proved a profitable one, appealing to the religious, the newly kosher and others who may want nondairy, halal or simply food that is perceived to be cleaner.
New York, the capital of fine dining, boasts a number of established top-caliber kosher restaurants, among them Le Marais, Abigail's, Tevere and The Prime Grill, which opened there in 2000 and has just opened in Beverly Hills, as well.
The arrival in Southern California of The Prime Grill -- a trendier, classier place than its New York counterpart -- and other restaurants, signifies that Los Angeles, a city that often lags foodwise behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago, might finally be catching up when it comes to kosher food.
In the second-largest U.S. Jewish city (behind New York) Los Angeles has a fair number -- about 50 -- kosher eateries, from bakeries to pizza stores to ethnic food and a number of fancier restaurants.
New restaurants are appearing that don't ladle up the chicken soup and pastrami sandwiches of yesteryear, though delis with that fare still abound, more often known as "kosher style" and consumed by the non-kosher crowd in the mood for a good knish.
This gourmet kosher trend is aspiring to create a whole new world of fine dining, with chefs trained at top culinary schools (some of them do not observe kashrut themselves) who offer high-end cuisine and extensive wine lists in dining rooms designed by famous decorators.
Pricey and elegant, the hope is to bring high-quality dining to the kosher consumer and, at the same time, attract all the other food connoisseurs that vie for tables at Los Angeles' top eateries.
But are Los Angeles' kosher consumers ready for high-class dining? And is the mainstream "treif" world ready to patronize a kosher restaurant as a prime destination?
What does it take to be a kosher restaurant? No. 1, of course, is adherence to the laws of kashrut, a complex system with innumerable subtleties and exceptions, but which at its most basic elements prohibits pork, shellfish and some other animals and fish and their byproducts. There are also restrictions regarding alcohol and produce and laws prohibiting mixing meat and dairy products. Any kosher restaurant must choose to be either fleishig or milchiks (the Yiddish words for meat or dairy), which means choosing between steakhouse or Italian, a deli or a pizzeria. Not both.
To be certified glatt or suitably kosher for the Orthodox (there are also some Conservative certifications), a restaurant cannot be open on Sabbath or Jewish festivals. And, further, to get a hashgachah -- the outside certification provided for a fee by organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of California, Kehilla and Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan, to name a few of the top L.A. certifiers -- the venue must have a mashgiach onsite -- a supervisor versed in the laws who will ensure complicity.
Rabbi Yaacov Vann, director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, one of the top kosher certifiers in California, describes the need for a kosher restaurant to be a "secure system," and he uses specific criteria to assess the risks of each establishment.
"How likely is there to be a problem?" he said.
Bakeries, like the famous Schwartz's, for example, have a low-risk assessment, because there's little differential between ingredients for kosher bakeries and non-kosher bakeries -- flour, sugar, eggs -- are all pareve. "There's little risk to cheat," he said.
Meat, by contrast, must come from a certified shohet, or butcher, and is more expensive than regular meat. (In September, a scandal rocked Monsey, N.Y., when a butcher was discovered selling non-kosher meat to the ultra-Orthodox community.)
All restaurants, of course, need more oversight than any bakery or pizzeria, and the bigger and busier the place, the more supervision it requires. Depending on the facility, the mashgiach may be the owner or someone who works in the store or an outsider -- although the RCC is hoping to require all restaurants to have outside supervisors to minimize corruption.
All this can cost the establishment thousands of dollars a year. But the assurance of strict observance is the only way to bring in people who eat kosher.
There are no statistics on the number of Jews who keep kosher in Los Angeles, though an estimated 10 percent of the L.A. area's roughly 600,000 are said to be Orthodox. But even those numbers don't mean much to restauranteurs, because not all religious Jews eat out, some do but only infrequently, limited by such reasons as money, time, family values or weekends spent at home for Shabbat. Many Jews who care about kashrut will also eat at non-kosher restaurants but limit themselves to nonmeat meals, allowing themselves more flexibility on the weekends, when kosher restaurants are closed.
In other words, it's impossible to gauge the size of the market for kosher dining, except to say that the clientele, until now, has been mostly Jews, friends of Jews or colleagues of Jews taken there for business meals. And everyone agrees, that despite many choices until now among kosher restaurants, there haven't been enough good kosher restaurants here.