February 15, 2007
L.A.‘s gourmet kosher makeover
Pricey, elegant restaurants feed the observant community's appetite for upscale dining
(Page 3 - Previous Page)The truth is, the kosher world is not as insulated as it used to be.
Ba'aeli teshuvah, returnees to the faith, and people who are "kosher-flexible" -- who eat at regular top restaurants but go to kosher restaurants to eat meat -- have brought their fancy-shmancy tastes with them.
Among these are the Ghanems, brothers Fabrice and Jeffrey, Shilo's founders, who owned a restaurant -- not kosher -- in the south of France with their parents and were used to dining out three or four times a week.
"In France, the kosher business is much more open than here," Jeffrey Ghanem said.
They were surprised when they came to Los Angeles.
"There's not enough restaurants, not enough variety, not enough dining," he said.
They set about creating that dining experience with a steak-centered menu, featuring entrecote, French bistro beefsteak, prime rib and lamb. The food is sometimes exotic (chicken Wellington with kosher fois gras), munificent (five steak sauces, including truffle, peppercorn and bordelais) and innovative (molten chocolate chip cake).
Ghanem is betting it will take, and they are expanding next door, hoping to double their somewhat cramped seating of 65 by spring.
The décor of cool whites and pale grays that seem bland in the daylight transforms the restaurant at night into an aura of candlelight, hushed tones, moonlight -- of France. But you're not in France, you're on the busy Pico, next to a bank, across from Jeff's Gourmet Sausage.
"To us it's the best location," Ghanem said. "The point of coming to Pico is not to be impressed by the street. Most of our clients live in mansions in Beverly Hills. You want to be in this area, especially if you're religious."
Not every kosher restaurateur agrees. When Joey Allaham, owner of The Prime Grill steakhouse in New York set his sights on Los Angeles, he didn't pick Pico but Beverly Hills. That's because he wanted to create something different, distinct even, from his traditional, boisterous steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, which opened seven years ago. (He plans to open another upscale kosher restaurnat in New York.)
The Prime Grill experience begins on Rodeo Drive with valet parking, a descent down the grand stairway of the Rodeo Collection (less a mall than a two-story courtyard with luxury stores), an outdoor waiting area (low, modern leather seats) and a dark, fully stocked lounge where a DJ spins tunes. All this precedes the restaurant part of the restaurant, which has two main rooms -- indoor and cabanas -- a few private rooms, and seats more than 200.
"I wanted to create a place where Jews can have a whole night out, instead of going out to eat at a kosher restaurant and then finding someplace else to go out. I want people to have the whole experience."
The whole experience, viewed from behind the plum gauze curtains in one of the four cushioned booths -- Larry King's favorite spot -- can rival many of Los Angeles' top trendy restaurants.
And that's what Allaham is going for: The mainstream diner. Kosher diners comprise only 20 percent of their clientele, he claimed. "I don't advertise it as kosher. We are a restaurant that happens to be kosher," said the Syrian-born Jew who came to the United States in 1994. "If you bring in a non-kosher person to eat here, I bet anything they'll never even know this is kosher. The only way they'd know is if they see people with beards and yarmulkes."
Of course, there are other ways a non-kosher person could detect differences -- that it's not open on Friday nights and Saturdays, the busiest night for dining out; that the nondairy desserts leave a slight aftertaste of margarine or nondairy creamer, and some vegetables -- fresh broccoli and cauliflower -- are not available because they might contain bugs, which would make them non-kosher.
And whether one might choose to spend a night out, for example, amid diners that include a Chabad couple, an Israeli family of seven, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and some businessmen, rather than with scantily clad celebrities and wannabees, is definitely a consideration.
But where it counts the most, the food, especially the steaks, are probably some of the tastiest -- kosher and non-kosher -- in the city. The meat is flown in from New York, where it has been dry aged for 32 days or wet aged for 45 days (soon to be available on the Internet), and the steaks are crisped in the 1,800-degree infrared broiler and served alone, steakhouse style (side dishes, like pesto mashed potatoes or wild mushrooms with truffles are extra).
A meal at The Prime Grill, with wine or a cocktail or two from the trendy bar -- could run between $60 and $100 per person. For a certain type of kosher diner, that's a major drawback.
"The steak was really good," a friend said. "But for that price would I go back? Not unless someone else is paying."
But Los Angeles has no shortage of wealthy Jews -- as well as Jews who may choose to eat kosher or non-kosher.
"This is my target," Allaham said. "People who choose to go to non-kosher restaurants who think they are better -- and have them come here a few times a week."
One kosher restaurant that must rely on non-kosher consumers is Tierra Sur in Oxnard, some 60 miles north of Los Angeles, pretty far from most of the Orthodox community, save for Chabads in Oxnard, Ventura and Camarillo. But that's OK, because the restaurant was created as part of a branding effort to market the Baron Herzog kosher wines to mainstream consumers.