January 11, 2007
Plan 9 from La Belle France
French Jews, especially the ones originally from Tunisia ("Les Tunes," in street slang) have an infectious spirit of the good life that can light up a neighborhood.
And slowly, very slowly, these French Jews are bringing their distinctive brand of joie de vivre to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood It started a few years ago with a little bakery called Delice on the north side of Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. Here was a delicious little sanctuary of French perfection -- kosher enough for the Lubavitcher Rebbe -- that gave the hood an alternative to the traditional Ashkenazic fare at places like Schwartz's Bakery across the street.
This French haven was not a Vegas-style simulation with pictures of the Eiffel Tower and cute men in berets carrying baguettes to impress Midwestern tourists. This was the real thing. Owner Julien Bohbot and his wife -- both French Jews originally from Morocco -- imported many of their ingredients from France, and even though that made them a little pricier, they became a mini sensation.
They also became a place for the French Jews of the hood to hang out and reconnect. That's where some of them planned the next injection of Frenchness into the neighborhood.
One of these planners was a young, bright-eyed French Tunisian Jew named Fabrice Ghanem, who after a year of tasting the food on Pico Boulevard dreamed of opening up a restaurant worthy of the boulevards of Paris.
Tunisian Jews have a reputation in business of being very resourceful. Within about six months, Fabrice and his brother had opened the latest kosher buzz on Pico, a French steak house called Shilo's. As he served me an Italian coffee on a recent Sunday afternoon, his handsome face kept grimacing, because he had to tell callers he couldn't take any more reservations. By 5 p.m., he had already turned down 35 people, which explains why he's working around the clock to finish an expansion that will double his capacity.
The success of Shilo's is not just due to the Frenchness of the menu, but also the Frenchness of the attitude, which basically goes like this: I am French, and in France we like to think we do everything a little better, especially when it comes to pleasure. That's why at Shilo's you'll find the only kosher foie gras in town, fish (loup de mer, not quite but almost like sea bass) shipped in from Tunisia and a sommelier named Olivier who insists on different wine glasses for red and white.
This is Jewish? Well, in Paris it is.
And if it were up to the several-hundred French Jews now living in Los Angeles, this kind of Frenchness will continue to infiltrate kosher neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson.
Already, the word is out that a popular French Tunisian restaurant on Melrose, Greta's, will soon open a place on Pico, right next to Schwartz's Bakery. Delice is also planning to open a restaurant, and I heard from a reliable source that two French Jews had just purchased a building in the heart of the hood, where they plan to open a kosher French sushi place. Apparently, the culinary world in Paris has really taken to sushi.
Hood adjacent, in the Rodeo Collection just downstairs from the new Prime Grill, is The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, a little kosher French cafe that imports fine wines, cheeses, custom-made chocolates from Normandy and other specialties directly from France. The owner, a French Ladino-speaking Jew named Laurent Masliah, is also expanding his menu and his capacity over the next few months.
The French kosher touch is spreading in different ways. For the past couple of years, an enterprising Algerian Jew named Pierre Sebban, who davens at the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard every morning, has been stocking the aisles of many local food markets with imported French cheeses, wines and other delicacies.
And all this injection of Frenchness is not just in food. Next door to Gino Tortorella's hair salon, also on Pico, is a classy eyewear boutique called Eyediologie, started by a Moroccan Jew named Max Castiel (who regularly brings in rabbis from France to speak) and his French Algerian wife Chantal. Surrounded by gift shops and kosher butchers that have been around for some 30 years, Eyediologie -- with a boutique of French fashion accessories just next door -- is another touch of Paris in the shtetl.
God bless America.
When they pray, which is often, most French Jews have congregated to the Pinto shul, where they lead quite a passionate minyan. Some also go to La Cienega Boulevard to the minyan of Rabbi Schmuel Miller, a brilliant, French-speaking scholar of Talmud, Rambam, Spinoza and ancient Sephardic melodies and texts.
What I have found especially captivating with these French Jews is the blending of French aesthetic perfectionism with the classic humility of the observant Jew, who knows that everything comes from God. You would think that these traits would be mutually exclusive, but in the hands of this new generation of religious bon vivants, they're not.
Maybe some of it has to do with simple gratitude. Many, if not most, of these French Jews have grown exasperated with the deteriorating situation of Jews living in France. So the freedom and opportunities of Los Angeles are a natural.
But there's a painful footnote to this story. French Jews have a very difficult time getting visas to live in the United States. According to Frank Valenti, a well-known French Tunisian Jew who's been a major supporter of the Pinto shul for years, there would be hundreds more French Jews bringing their savoir faire to Los Angeles if it were easier for them to get a visa. So many of them have to go back and forth on temporary visas, and some just wait and hope.
Maybe they should find a way to get the head of immigration down to Shilo's so they can work their French charm, with a little help from Olivier, the sommelier.