February 15, 2007
L.A.‘s gourmet kosher makeover
Pricey, elegant restaurants feed the observant community's appetite for upscale dining
(Page 4 - Previous Page)"We were thinking of doing a café," Joseph Herzog said, when they first planned the winemaking facility. But then they realized the tasting room, as well as the eatery, must be luxury, if they wanted to market themselves to upscale to non-kosher consumers, as well as make themselves a "destination" for kosher consumers.
From afar, the place looks like a squat industrial building "in the middle of strawberry fields," as Herzog said. But inside the tasting room/gift shop is like a kosher luxury goods museum, with wines, brandies, ports, champagnes, cigars, cookbooks, tapenades, sauces and more. The 44-seat restaurant, whose ceiling stretches to the second floor (where a self-guided tour of the winery is available), is decorated in a modern, industrial style, with duo-tone yellow and brown walls, where a crescent shape aperture creates a semi-open kitchen.
From that kitchen comes: lamb bacon, salt cod fritters, lamb with couscous, venison, caramel pot de cr?me -- whatever strikes chef Todd Aarons fancy. For a kosher restaurant trying to market itself as mainstream, Aarons is an ideal chef: He wasn't raised kosher. He trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and has worked at the famous Zuni café there and later the Savoy in New York. Then he went to study in Israel and decided to become religious -- and kosher.
Although he could still "cook a pork chop with my eyes closed" i.e,, without having to taste it, "being a shomer Shabbos chef was a problem." He thought about changing his career, but after a stint in kosher catering ("I thought I'd kill myself"), he opened up his own restaurant in New Jersey -- which is where one of the Herzog brothers found him and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I don't walk in the morning and say, 'I want to make kosher food today!'" Aaron said.
He makes what he calls Mediterranean- and Spanish- influenced food, using local flavors and seasonal produce. He tries to avoid margarine -- using soy milk when he can for desserts, and attempts to replicate some treif food, such as the lamb bacon, maple cured and smoked for six hours, like regular bacon would be.
"Kosher has gotten a bad rap," Aaron said. "For a long time it meant deli. No one knew what it was. It was dominated by the Ashkenazic Eastern European flavors. But Jews ate the food of whatever country they were in. Kosher doesn't delineate the type of food it is. If it's cooked in a kosher style, it's kosher."
As to kosher clients, he believes they're the same as non-kosher. "You know, look at the non-kosher world, there are people who don't care about food, and there are people who are foodies," Aaron said.
"There are people who care about artistry, people who care about getting what they paid for. You have to appeal to everyone."
He considers himself fortunate. "It's nice to enable myself to enjoy what I love to do and remain kosher myself. I just happen to be at this time in history that there's a market for it."
Any discussion of fine kosher dining in Los Angeles must include Pat's, one of the first and best-known upscale kosher restaurants in Los Angeles. The trajectory of their owners -- chef Pat Fine and her husband, Errol, who runs the business -- mirrors the transformation of kosher dining in the city.
Twenty-five years ago, the South African-born, Modern Orthodox couple started Elite Cuisine, with both a deli and takeout in Santa Monica and near Hancock Park.
Then about 15 years ago, they decided to close up shop and open a real restaurant. "We felt our skills were more toward restaurant than deli," said Pat Fine. She felt her culinary talents were wasted on a deli.
She likes to tell the story of an early dissatisfied walk-in.
"Where's the chicken soup and matzah balls?" he demanded. Today, she said, this same man calls in his order for the ravioli of the day.
"He never asked for chicken soup again," she said. "From gefilte fish and matzah balls, in many respects we educated the customers."
"We wanted to make people proud to come into our restaurant, not to feel it was kosher," she said, echoing many of the new restaurateurs.
"We wanted to take kosher out of the dinginess into the limelight, to show that kosher can be delicious. In those days, it was falafel, stuffed cabbage."
When they opened the eponymous Pat's in what now seems like a prime location on Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive, Pico wasn't the "hood" it is today. The center of L.A. Modern Orthodoxy was just first beginning to bloom, and there were only a few kosher places. "It was sparse," said Errol Fine.
There were a few other kosher places: The Milky Way preceded them, as did a smaller Pico Kosher Deli, but Nagila pizzeria and schwarma, a local teen and family hangout, came later. Nowadays, Pico is to kosher what Rodeo Drive is to luxury.
"We're the anchor for the restaurants around here," he said. Pat's is also a catering business, with exclusive contracts to the Ritz chain and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and subcontractor for many events in the city, for example, if a Spago event needs to be kosher or have kosher food, which increasingly occurs nowadays. The catering business accounts for about 65 percent of their revenue and serves as a model for many new establishments in the city that hope to offer catering, as well.
The restaurant seats about 120 and has been redecorated twice to keep up with the times. That's very important to Pat Fine. "We keep up with the current food trends," she said, talking about health, portion control, elegant presentation and the latest food demands. For example, Tuesday nights are sushi. Seared tuna is an appetizer.
Avocado graces the salads. For the most part, Pat's can be called fusion, with options of meat, chicken, fish and pasta. "The customer has become more sophisticated," Errol Fine said.
"People are becoming ba'al teshuvah and they know what to eat, but everyone's excited to try new things."
Today one probably wouldn't call Pat's cutting-edge kosher. Pat Fine is a self-taught cook (trained as a pharmacist), and many describe the restaurant as more of a day-to-day place, rather than an "event" restaurant. But the Fines said they welcome the new arrivals.
"In a way it just underlines the fact that we're good, and it gives our customers another choice. The community has grown," Errol Fine said.
Besides, Pat's has been around for a while.
"Restaurants have come and gone," he said. "It all takes the test of time."