June 26, 2013
Los Angeles’ top Jewish chefs under 40
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Zach Pollack, 29, who along with Steve Samson, runs Sotto Italian restaurant on West Pico, near Beverly Drive, grew up "quite Reform" in Westwood. His mother was born in Germany to refugees who immigrated to the United States "in the aftermath of the Holocaust," Pollack said. “We took Jewish cultural traditions seriously,” he noted, and religious practice less so, although he did have a bar mitzvah.
Pollack’s formative professional conversion can be traced to his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy; after graduating from Brown University, he returned to Italy to fully develop his passion for its cooking. (Samson was raised in an interfaith family that didn’t regularly observe Jewish rituals.) The duo brings a seriousness of purpose and commitment to quality to a block not previously known for culinary accomplishment. That was until Sotto and its upstairs neighbor, chef Ricardo Zarate’s Picca Peruvian cantina, transformed their eclectic colonial townhouse building into a dining destination. At lunch and dinner, the cozy subterranean room is packed with diners sharing hearty plates of grilled meatballs with bitter greens, deliciously funky blistered pizzas, traditional Italian dishes that use quintessentially West Coast ingredients such as Fresno chilies and formidable protein dishes paired with seasonal vegetables.
9575 W. Pico Blvd. - Los Angeles
(310) 277-0210 - sottorestaurant.com
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Microsoft
Animal, Son of a Gun and Trois Mec
Jon Shook and his business partner, Vinny Dotolo, opened their first restaurant in the heart of the Fairfax District among the delis, Judaica shops and skater hangouts. But if you expect Animal to share anything in common with its next-door neighbor and landlord, the kosher icon Schwartz Bakery and Café, let us disabuse you of any such notions immediately. (Their lease agreement actually includes a non-kosher clause.) “It’s kind of random that we ended up on Fairfax,” Shook remarked, “but it’s been interesting.” Both Florida natives, Dotolo and Shook, 32, were among the city’s first ambassadors of the nose-to-tail philosophy and approach. And yet despite Shook’s love of a “Jewish-grandma-style brisket,” they’re far from being a one-trick pony extreme-meat shtick. The Shook/Dotolo brand has thrived with their seafood-focused Son of a Gun on Third Street, near La Cienega, which also happens to serve a crave-inducing fried chicken sandwich, along with the stellar petite lobster roll and raw seafood dishes infused with unexpected flavors.
They’ve also opened Trois Mec (the name roughly translates as “three dudes”), a partnership with celebrated French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who is arguably best known for his series of highly in-demand pop-up dinners called LudoBites. This collaborative project is tucked within a former Raffalo’s strip mall pizza shop catty-corner from Silverton’s Mozza, and immediately attracted accolades for the inventive prix fixe menu that changes almost daily. The restaurant’s system, requiring advance purchase of a meal in lieu of making a traditional reservation, much like a cultural event, also got attention. Any resulting criticism hasn’t impacted the bottom line — Trois Mec’s 24 seats remain among the hottest tickets in town. The most recent news out of the Shook/Dotolo camp is a vague plan announced via Instagram to take over the Damiano’s space on Fairfax; it helps that they own the building.
435 N. Fairfax Ave. - Los Angeles
(323) 782-9225 - animalrestaurant.com
Son of a Gun
8370 W. Third St. - Los Angeles
(323) 782-9033 - sonofagunrestaurant.com
716 N. Highland Ave. - Los Angeles
The Residency at Umamicatessen
“I didn’t set out to say I want to be the modern Jewish chef,” Micah Wexler, 30, explained at Reboot’s “Who’s Your Bubbie?” panel at the Skirball last November. “These were the flavors I grew up around, [and they] started to manifest more and more.” So it additionally stung when Wexler, who has staged in some of Europe’s most famous kitchens, was getting into the groove of revisiting the Ashkenazic culinary canon at his pan-Mediterranean Mezze restaurant on La Cienega then had to close down suddenly due to construction next door.
Losing that venue as a home base for his Old World-meets-New, market-driven dishes, including chopped chicken livers with apple mostarda, farm egg shakshouka, soujouk sausage with muhammara and veal jus, and smoked sablefish with lebne, has by no means kept him out of the L.A. food scene, however. Wexler is currently in the midst of his second stint at Umamicatessen’s Residency project downtown, cooking multicourse dinners in an open kitchen surrounded by customers seated at his counter for a very specific experience. The configuration makes for a social, interactive Saturday night, as does the conceit. For the current “Dead Chefs” theme, continuing through July, Wexler turns to the canon to cook recipes from a different historical culinary giant for each of the 10 weeks, starting with Marie-Antoine Careme and concluding with Julia Child.
“To Live and Dine in L.A.,” Wexler’s previous, inaugural session of the program, took a specific geographical approach, with nights dedicated to saluting the best of Pico Boulevard and exploring the diverse heritage Boyle Heights, among other communities. Wexler might have made an Israeli cheese-stuffed borek in reference to Eilat Market, but not one you’d typically expect. (Hint: Bacon was involved.)
A graduate of Milken Community High School, Wexler and his business partner (and fellow Cornell University alum) Mike Kassar, are setting their sights on settling down again, in a new locale, in the coming months.
The Residency at Umamicatessen
852 Broadway - Los Angeles
(213) 413-8626 - umami.com/umamicatessen
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