February 15, 2007
L.A.‘s gourmet kosher makeover
Pricey, elegant restaurants feed the observant community's appetite for upscale dining
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Some argue that Los Angeles' kosher restaurants have not been sufficiently challenged by the forces of competition. People complain about the service (rude, rushed, the customer is not always right), the ambience (often they are loud, crowded and brightly lit), the price (costly) and the food ("For this I have to go out? I could make better at home!")
But all this hasn't cut demand, which makes sense if you only eat at your neighborhood restaurant, and it's probably a family restaurant, and it's not open on Friday night and maybe not even Saturday night, and you probably wouldn't go out Saturday night, because you're tired from Sabbath entertaining, so you end up going out to eat the same Sunday or Thursday nights as everyone else, and you go where you run into a million people you know, and while it might be crowded and noisy, it's a family a scene you might enjoy.
That, for many, has been the extent their kosher dining experience. Until now.
At A Cow Jumped Over the Moon, a new French gourmet shop and café that opened last fall, a large hunk of real parmesan cheese ($40 a pound) sits atop a glass counter filled with more gourmet cheeses and chocolate truffles from Normandy. The right wall of the small shop is lined with wines that range in price from $25 to $175 per bottle and come from private kosher reserves in Europe. A glass wall is lined with gourmet kosher products from around the world and overlooks the seating square outside the shop, where half a dozen people pop in for lunch.
What could be bad about a Savoy fondue for two made with melted Gruyere, Emmental cheese, white wine and garlic? Or a Brie sandwich with apples, walnuts and honey on toasted French baguette? And a sweet crepe topped with pralines, melted chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream? Aside from a tighter waistband, nothing.
The cheeses are creamy, pungent, smooth, imported and kosher. The bistro almost could be straight from France, and if you look at the cobblestone floor, the black and orange décor, you might almost believe you are in Paris, except for one thing: The restaurant is located underground in the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills, next to the valet parking.
That's the thing about kosher restaurants, they don't always seem to get all the elements right: Food, location, service, ambiance. But still, the food -- foreign, different, gourmet -- might be enough to bring in customers, at least for takeout, and the owner hopes that restaurant will serve as a testing ground for future locations. If it can survive underground, it will prove that kosher consumers are ready for gourmet food.
There's an asterisk next to the steak list on the menu at both Shiloh's and The Prime Grill: "We are not responsible for well-done steaks." The steaks range from rib eye to Black Angus to entrecote, and as many foodies know are best eaten medium rare. But not all the customers know that -- or know what medium rare is.
According to the chefs, a kosher diner measures meat on a different cooking scale than most other diners.
"Food has to be cooked on temperature up from what people say," said Aaron Bashy, chef de cuisine at The Prime Grill. When they request rare, they mean medium rare; when they request medium, that's the chef's well done.
"The medium here, they really want it well done," said Bashy, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and was raised in a Sephardic kosher home.
What do many mean by well-done? Charred. Till all the juices are dried out. Steak is not meant to be eaten well done, and certainly not that well done.
"Any time you cook meat you reduce the juice," said Michael Ayetkin, executive chef at Shilo's, which opened in late fall. He insisted on the inclusion of the addendum on the menu.
"It's not very pleasurable to eat steak well done," he said. "If you want it well done and juicy, there's no such thing."
Ayetkin, Shilo's chef, went to culinary school in his native Turkey and has served as a food and beverage executive at hotels and restaurants around the world. This is his first venture with kosher cooking and religious diners.
"Eating is different than dining," Ayetkin said. "Eating is to fill up because you are hungry, but dining is enjoyment with pleasure. If I dine, it's different than when I eat. When I eat, I may have a hamburger and french fries, but when I dine, I want different food and ambiance."
The chef thinks that many of Shilo's diners come for good kosher steak, but don't come for the dining experience.
"These people are sophisticated, but they don't believe in that lifestyle," Ayetkin said.
Limited availability of upscale dining experiences has certainly limited many kosher palates, yet, the religious world -- especially Modern Orthodox -- has always been influenced by the outside world, from trends in fashion to education to parenting. No less so with food. In the last decade, as America has fallen in love with food -- food preparation, food presentation, food consumption -- the kosher world also has taken note. Even if they can't eat all the ingredients featured on the food network, they can still make something that will taste -- and look -- similar.
Consider the popularity of cookbook author Suzie Fishbein's "Kosher by Design" series, which first came out in 2003 and has become a kosher empire: her four books have sold more than 300,000 copies and her tours and classes around the country are always full. Although there are hundreds of kosher cookbooks on the market, Fishbein, an entertainer more than a chef, has brought concepts of style and food arrangement, as well as gourmet ingredients, into the kosher home.