October 21, 2011
A season of change
Lunch in the small, red-tiled Paprika Grill in Tarzana, with its short, kosher Mediterranean menu, seems like a simple proposition. But everything looks and smells so good: shwarma, shakshouka, sabich, pargiot and three kinds of crispy schnitzel. Although owner-chef Tommy Marudi was previously a chef at Aroma Bakery and Café — which has one of the biggest, most overwhelming menus in town — he is doing something different here at Paprika, making big changes in his cooking and in his life, and they begin with the small, well-edited menu choices.
Marudi knows that these Mediterranean favorites can be done well if they are freshly made, carefully spiced and artfully presented, and the selected items are what he is going to stick to for the moment. On Fridays, there is a selection of prepared foods on display to take out. On Saturdays, he is closed all day, at least until the sun sets a little earlier.
One clue to what makes Paprika Grill different from other local restaurants serving Israeli food is that the ubiquitous television is tuned to the food channel instead of soccer. Marudi, 28, is the cook, greeter, manager and owner, and he is always there. Slim and intense with wide blue eyes and dark hair, he could easily be a guitar player in a local band, another L.A. hopeful in a dark T-shirt and camouflage pants, but, in fact, the young man already has seven years of serious cooking experience behind him.
Marudi has big American dreams, but they’re grounded in the reality of his experience in the kitchen. He is rightly proud that Paprika Grill already has been recognized by Los Angeles Magazine as serving the best Israeli breakfast in town. Astute food chronicler Linda Burum writes, “The brightly spiced mix of fresh tomatoes, onions, and chiles known as shakshouka is cooked down to a bold stew in which eggs gently simmer. At Paprika Grill a primo house-baked baguette sops up the yolk-enriched sauce.”
For lunch, Marudi recommends the pargiot, spicy bite-sized pieces of dark meat chicken, chopped and grilled Jerusalem style, with caramelized onions, lemon, garlic and parsley. It is presented with two kinds of cabbage salad — one bright purple and creamy, one green and sharp; crisp Israeli salad; creamy, house-made hummus; and a soft, pillowy, hot pita. It took Marudi a while to find the right pita, one that resembled the pitas he ate in Israel. The source he finally found here is also an Israeli transplant, also just starting out, and he makes the pitas on machines he brought directly from Israel.
Marudi was born in California, but grew up in Tel Aviv. As a teenager, he worked as a dishwasher in his uncle’s Tel Aviv restaurant, learning to cook from the man who Marudi says is still the best chef he knows. Returning to Los Angeles at 21, he got a job as a cook at Aroma, the locus of Israeli activity in the Valley, and helped develop the big, photo-heavy menu. He discovered as he worked that he had a gift for invention and presentation, which he now puts to use on catering jobs, finding ways to reinvent skewers and make sabich sandwiches into smaller, more sophisticated bites.
Working at Aroma was an invaluable learning experience, but the demanding work schedule took its toll on him. Marudi missed the rhythms and practices of his religious family back home. This past summer, he left Aroma to open his own kosher place. Now, in addition to managing the kitchen, he is also learning “front of the room” (eight tables, six seats at the counter) customer relations and financial management. This winter, he will be marrying a fellow Aroma alum, and in the late summer he will become a father.
On the verge of starting his own home and family, the ambitious young restaurateur seems to be changing everything in his life at once, but he is doing so carefully and thoughtfully, the way he arranges food on a plate. Being closed Friday night and all day Saturday is tough for business, not to mention the rabbi’s prohibition on having the place redecorated during the holidays, but Marudi trusts that in addition to his hard work and innovation, somebody is watching over his venture and it will lead to a good way of life for himself, his new family and his delighted customers.
As with many good things, Paprika Grill can be a little hard to find. The restaurant’s name was not yet on the mini-mall marquee when I visited, and the banner hanging at the entrance had been flipped up by the wind. But drive slowly as you approach the corner of Corbin Avenue and Ventura Boulevard and follow the delicious aroma to the door.