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September 27, 2011

Kashrut and Mindfulness:  Savoring Fresh, Local Fare at La Seine

http://www.jewishjournal.com/food/article/kashrut_and_mindfulness_savoring_fresh_local_fare_at_la_seine_20110927

La Seine’s short rib plate. Photo by Alexandra Marlin

La Seine’s short rib plate. Photo by Alexandra Marlin

This is a story about a dream afternoon I spent at La Seine, where chef Alex Reznik is cooking seasonal, farm-to-table, California-Asian … kosher food. The restaurant’s owner, Laurent Masliah, named La Seine for the river at the heart of his hometown, but I can’t help but think it’s intentional that the name also sounds somewhat like La Cienega, the boulevard on which the restaurant is located. Its building is long and low, and its wide, clear-glass front looks out onto the busy street. Guests can sit at the sushi bar to the left, at the traditional bar, in the lounge or, on the other side of two exposed brick divider walls, in the more formal dining area. That room’s palette is earthy and clean, crisp white, elegant but not too formal. Masliah — who, with his eager, open face,  greets his guests dressed in khakis and a dark shirt, kippah in place — clearly wants everyone to be comfortable here.

Evenings, the dining room is full of people celebrating — multigenerational family groups, office mates, lovers enjoying tender hanger steaks, lamb and more lamb (bone chop, belly confit) or the day’s fish on black Forbidden Rice. The dining room’s acoustics are terrific; a couple at a table for two can converse even though the large family at the table along the wall all seems to be talking at once. For a person lunching alone, the small patio area out front, screened by a ficus hedge, is perfect on a fall day in Los Angeles. Taking time to eat and time to think about what we are eating is as much a luxury these days as the more discussed “luxury” of good, nutritional food. And the food Reznik is making at La Seine takes time and deserves time.

Lunch begins with a cocktail, suggested by Reznik himself.

“It’s afternoon,” he urges, his eyes bright.

He is out on the floor often, checking in with diners, looking a little like a clever scientist, with his shaved head and short-sleeved white coat. He is full of energy, and he needs to be, as his workdays begin at 11 a.m. and go on well past midnight. On Wednesdays, he and his crew venture out even earlier to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. La Seine is closed on Shabbat, of course, but Reznik seems to struggle a little with the idea of rest. He sleeps in, he takes walks, but he’s happy to be back in the kitchen when the sun goes down on Saturday night.

The cocktail is delicious, as promised — a mix of refreshing plum, quince, Campari, gin and Prosecco to sip as the world hurries by on La Cienega. Plates begin to arrive. The deep, sweet and earthy-tasting heirloom beets with arugula have tiny cumin-spiced French lentils at their center instead of the typical glob of goat cheese. There is no dairy at La Seine, and it isn’t missed. (La Seine’s mashgiach studied cooking in Israel and also acts as a sous-chef.) Reznik, who is a “Top Chef” alum, takes the restrictions as a challenge, along with the issue of cooking “seasonally” in Southern California, where it is hot well into October and the sweet corn, tomatoes and English peas still attract.

Chef Alex Reznik. Photo by Peden + Munk

My salad is followed by a crudo, paper-thin white slices of snapper in fine salsa, with sweet pink grapefruit, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and a beautiful half-dozen pieces of sushi, which Reznik calls a playful take on fish tacos. Tiny slivers of ripe avocado and cilantro are tucked in the rice, topped with a bite of tempura halibut and a dollop of spicy aioli. The crispness of the fish and the richness of the aioli are perfect together. Because I am alone, I can eat slowly, taking notes, taking breaths, tasting each flavor, finishing each dish.

Reznik prefers the idea of sushi as an appetizer, followed by a more substantial meal. (One night at the bar, I saw a man happily polish off a yellowtail, spicy big-eye tuna, avocado and tempura roll, braised short ribs, extra fries and a lamb dish. One can eat heartily at La Seine, and it also offers a full kosher wine list watched over by friendly sommelier Adnan Mourani.) When the chef comes out to check on me again, he suggests I try something more … manly … for my next course.

It turns out to be his excellent version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, bahn-mi, with heavenly thin, spicy potato chips. The bahn-mi roll is perfectly crusty on the outside, the beef short ribs that take the place of the traditional pork are rich and spicy, perfect with the lime, mint and spicy mayonnaise that softens the inside of the roll. The complexity of these tastes, adapted from the colonial French by Vietnamese cooks and brought to America and interpreted here by a Ukraine-born chef in a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, says just about everything I love about eating in Los Angeles. I finish my perfect, solitary meal with a lemon soufflé tart, the last refreshing sips of my cocktail and coffee.

The laws of kashrut can be understood as a kind of mindfulness practice: to take time to stop, notice the details — if you are lucky enough, as I was at the start of a new year, to be surrounded by such bounty — to pay attention to the gifts of the earth, the garden and the chef himself.

La Seine is now open for lunch as well as dinner, and, after Shabbat on Saturday nights, there is live entertainment in the lounge. 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 358-0922. laseinebg.com.

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