March 16, 2011
Spice it up
The old-fashioned chalkboard just outside the front doors of Sassi in Encino announces that the day’s special is Tripolitan couscous, and this is exactly what I’m here for.
Sassi is a small, family-owned, glatt kosher Mediterranean restaurant. Of course, Mediterranean covers an enormous territory. The food prepared along its shores includes falafel and pasta, moussaka and hummus, shwarma and shish kebab, and in Israel, schnitzel, stuffed cabbage and hamburgers are also part of the cuisine. While it is true that Sassi does all of these things well, the family recipes are primarily North African — a blend of tastes both delicate and bold: cumin, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, cloves, paprika, mint and lemon.
Inside, the light is bright, reflecting off the gold- and rust-toned walls, and the atmosphere is cozy and welcoming. There are faux ruins scattered here and there, perhaps a nod to the long history of life along the Mediterranean. It is quiet, a place to take your time eating and relaxing.
A friendly Israeli waitress brings us bowls of tart beet, carrot and cabbage salads and a basket of toasted pita bread. She is from Bat Yam and chats with my husband about the pleasures of the Mediterranean — the warmth of the water, the beauty of the beaches and, of course, the food. I order a beer, and Andy has tea with fresh mint leaves.
For dinner, my husband orders the moussaka with finely chopped Israeli salad and Moroccan olives, which turns out to be a bowl of green olives warmed in tomato sauce. The moussaka is nicely spiced, tasty even without true bechamel sauce. (At a table near us, a man tries to amuse his date by asking the waitress for butter, cheese and other items that the nonobservant may miss in a kosher establishment.)
The waiter commends me when I order the couscous, and when the dish arrives, it does not disappoint. Couscous is thought to have originated with the indigenous North African Berbers. Like bread, pasta, potatoes and rice, couscous is a staple food that lends itself to many occasions and situations. It is enjoyed in humble kitchens and grand feasts alike across much of the world. Sephardic tradition teaches that couscous brings with it the blessings of health, success and abundance.
The Sassi family version of Tripolitan couscous is rich and varied, and the hearty portion can easily satisfy two people, although I plan to eat it all. The pearly grains of farina, steamed and fluffy, glisten with chicken broth. Tender meat falls off the chicken leg that comes with it, and there is also mafroma, a potato stuffed with ground beef with a delicate hint of cinnamon or maybe cloves. The thing I like best, though, is the squash puree, which L.A. Times restaurant critic Linda Burum calls tarshi kar’ah, and our waitress struggles to translate. Whatever the name, it is tart and garlicky, salty with a hint of sweetness all at the same time. The complex flavor seems to be at the heart of much of North African cooking. There are also sliced and pickled red pepper and cauliflower and steamed vegetables atop the couscous. I shouldn’t eat it all, I think to myself, but it is delicious and so I do.
While we are savoring our entrees, the families who had arrived for an early dinner leave and younger people begin to stream in. One booth fills up with Israeli guys, maybe all getting off work or meeting for dinner before a night out. Three young people — a couple and their single friend — sit near us.
As usual, my husband suggests we properly explore all categories on the menu — especially dessert. The waitress brings a tray of desserts for us to investigate. We are both drawn to the chocolate soufflé and are happy to wait the 10 minutes for it to be warmed. While we wait, we overhear the young couple counseling their lovelorn single friend. Even after 30 years of marriage, I can still recall what it’s like being single and mystified by couples who make relationships look easy. I realize now that being happily married is not such a monumental task: You put down the phone — or iPod, iPad or whatever new gadget comes along to distract you from life — order the sumptuous special on the menu, and if your partner offers to go halves with you on a hot, dark chocolate soufflé, say yes without hesitation.
Sassi Restaurant, 15622 Ventura Blvd., Encino.