"We don't do falafel or schwarma," said Avi Ben-Harouch while seated on a beige banquette in the elegant dining room of his new restaurant, Avi's Bistro in Agoura Hills. Ben-Harouch is hoping that the Wok Seared Fresh Tuna and Linguine with Kielbasa Sausage that his restaurant serves will enable Avi's Bistro to not only be the Conejo Valley's answer to Pats in Pico-Robertson, but the kosher consumer's Spago.
"We want the customers to know that there is more [to kosher food] than just hummus," said Alon Marer, the chef at Avi's Bistro. "Our food is fresh, challenging and exciting, even using all the limitations that we have."
Avi's Bistro is one of several new kosher establishments in the L.A. area that are endeavoring to provide the kosher community with a gastronomic experience that will cause them to reassess what they previously thought of as acceptable dining. The trend in most new kosher stores is that kosher is merely an adjunct, not the raison d'être of the place. From importing bakers from France to negotiating with tough shopping mall owners, proprietors are pulling out all the stops to ensure that their establishments are indistinguishable from -- and possibly superior to -- the non-kosher equivalents.
"I think this is the first time that there has ever been a kosher place in a mall in the Western United States," said Marty Katz about his new restaurant, the All American Sausage Co., which is located in the Grove at Farmers Market. "It was a very difficult process to get in there, but I think we did a tremendous thing for the Jewish community, because finally mall shoppers can sit down and eat at a place that is kosher."
The All American Sausage Company serves traditional American fare -- hot dogs, fries, onion rings, chili -- and it has a variety of sausages to choose from. Its location in the Grove means that shoppers who keep kosher no longer have to look longingly while other shoppers get a bite to eat in the food court. But the All American Sausage Company has not yet attracted the very religious crowd. "We are open on Shabbat," Katz explained. "We have to -- that is the rule of the mall. But I studied the [Jewish] laws with Rabbi [Yehuda] Bukspan, our supervising rabbi, and it is actually permissible to be open on Shabbat if there is a non-Jewish partner who is in charge of that part of the business, which there is. But a lot of people don't understand that it is permissible by Jewish law."
Katz is planning to erect a sukkah at the Grove for Sukkot, and he is also in negotiations to take his company nationwide by opening up in different malls.
"We stayed away from the Jewish type of operation," he said. "We wanted something more Americanized, and we wanted people to feel like they were eating in a non-kosher place even though it is kosher."
Across town on Pico Boulevard, two new kosher bakeries are trying their luck with imported formulas.
Shlomo Bibi, who opened Bibi's Warmstone Bakery in July, said that the warmstone oven he brought in from Israel to make pita with zaatar, calzones and mini pizzas produces baked goods unrivaled in Los Angeles. "The warmstone is better than an ordinary oven, and it is also a beautiful oven -- but you can't get pita anywhere else like the pita we make here. It is really special," Bibi said.
Further down Pico Boulvard, the newly opened Delice Bakery is doing a roaring trade in high-quality kosher French baked goods. Delice is a bakery/cafe, started by Jacob Levy and Julian Bobot, who imported bakers from France to staff the place. Delice also imports many of the ingredients that it uses. Goat cheese and crème de marron (chestnut cream) from France, dulce de leche from Israel, real whipped cream from New York and Edam cheese from Europe. "We are using the best ingredients available on the kosher market," Levy said. "We pay four times as much for butter as a regular bakery pays, because we only use cholav Yisrael [milk products supervised by a rabbi], but our prices are comparable with French bakeries."
Although they cost more than cakes at other kosher bakeries, Delice's $18 cakes are visually stunning, and their $24 fruit tarts are glorious cornucopias of fresh, delicious-looking produce. The croissants are flaky and buttery, and they have an array of gourmet breads -- olive, sun-dried tomato, walnut and baguettes.
"We wanted to do something for the community that they can be proud of," Levy said.
"When people come to a restaurant, they should know it is kosher, and then they should put it out of their mind," Marer said. "We want to get people back to thinking about how the food was grown and the creativity of how the menu was put together. That is what should get them excited."
Avi's Bistro is located at 30315 Canwood St., Agoura Hills, (818) 991-9560.
All American Sausage Co. is located at the Grove at Farmer's Market, (323) 933-9600.
Bibi's Warmstone Bakery is located at 8928 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 246-1788.
Delice Bakery is located at 8583 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 289-6556.