Posted by Louis Keene
It happened recently that I was treated to quite poor service at a kosher restaurant on Pico Boulevard.
I suppose a statement like that doesn’t serve much purpose if I withhold the identity of the restaurant. But I will anyway – chances are, if it wasn’t just a bad day at the restaurant, you probably will have heard about unfriendly waiters and long wait times, or else read about them on one of my crowd-sourced counterparts.
Failed service etiquette isn’t common in Pico-Robertson, but it isn’t uncommon either. You’ll find yourself twenty minutes after you order wondering where the food is. Or you’ll have to search for napkins on your own when the food finally arrives.
Chalk those up to a lack of training—standard fare in a local industry with a tendency to hire from within. But you can’t explain rude.
How can Jews treat other Jews like that?
It’s a problem because Jews invented hospitality. And because hospitality is a tchelet in the fabric of Jewish tradition. A few weeks ago, when I asked what impressions the word kosher makes – this must be the answer! Service should separate kosher from the chaff.
But it doesn’t. So during a nine-day period when we mourn the derech eretz of our ancestors, examining ourselves today might reveal another Kamtza.
If we treat Jews who enter our place of business with disregard, then imagine what kind of treatment a non-Jew might expect. We would waste our prime opportunity to make Kiddush Hashem.
So if you insist on identifying yourself as a Jewish establishment (and even if you don’t), then wear your hechsher with a sense of heritage. We owe it to ourselves because if we can’t, we should probably be fasting more often.
To conclude with a story: when I ate one afternoon at Schnitzly, there wasn’t a lot going on. Two religious families had ordered before me, eaten, and left. The first half of my baguette was terrific; the second half I was having trouble finishing – hey, you’re not ordering from the kids menu at this place.
As I surveyed the quiet scene for blog ideas, one of the cooks walked over to my table and politely offered to pack up the rest of my lunch for me. More than the surprisingly great fries and action-packed garlic schnitzel, his going above and beyond easily became my takeaway from the meal.
Have a safe and meaningful fast, and let us be the change we wish to see.
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July 26, 2012 | 7:53 pm
Posted by Louis Keene
July 20, 2012 | 6:51 am
Posted by Louis Keene
Rising from the grave of Kosher Subway, Meshuga 4 Sushi attempts to fit into the kosher food chain as a casual but clean sushi joint with a deep lineup of tempura and hand rolls. The setup appears to be mostly held over from the old tenants, but that’s pretty much all for resemblances between the two.
Meshuga opened on Pico Boulevard in April hoping to carve out a niche in a Murderer’s Row of kosher establishments that runs between Livonia and Crest. The deck is stacked against them, though. Meshuga faces competition not only from their neighbors, but from nearby non-kosher sushi places like Minori and Crazy Fish as well.
It’s a fact that all kosher dairy restaurants have to realize – Jews who “eat dairy out” (in other words, will eat Spicy Tuna at a bar that serves authentic California rolls) make up a crucial chunk of a successful customer base in this neighborhood. And inherent difficulties in favorably differentiating from non-kosher have rendered an indomitable market for Sushiko and Kosher Subway and even Café Blue back in the day.
Fortunately Meshuga’s food tastes fantastic. Really! And comes fast, and someone else had to tell me what to order, because everything on the menu looked so good. His selections: the Crunchy Munchy Roll and the Cannonball.
I watched one chef prepare the Cannonball – a tempura pipeline carrying salmon and avocado, wielding a spicy house sauce and showered with a sweet potato crunch tinsel – while another crafted the Crunchy Munchy (kani, cucumber, and avocado topped with crunch flakes and faux masago), all behind the same glass display cases that contained baggies of deli meat only a few years ago.
Took the sushi to the beach already salivating but still wondering, how is this restaurant, in this cursed lot, gonna stay in business long enough for me to try all the rolls?
Well, brand image concerns aside (and already covered in the Got Kosher? review), Meshuga could partner with a glatt market and sell pre-packaged sushi there - in other words, find a large-scale buyer. Then intensify its outreach through social media platforms. Eventually it might sell its sauce at Livonia Glatt. Host special “sushi hour.” Sell alcoholic beverages (whoops, taboo. Seriously, though).
And would it really kill to change the name to something less corny? It’s times like this when I really miss Japanika.
Back to the important question, how to keep non-kosher sushi out of mind for the fine-either-way customer: start by featuring a few signature rolls that can’t be found down the street – rolls you would swear by. I think I’m getting there with the Cannonball, but it’s up to you to find yours.
While you still can!
July 13, 2012 | 4:25 am
Posted by Louis Keene
The truth is, I knew that Got Kosher?, a wildly popular Shabbos takeout venture operating basically out of B’nai David Judea’s garage, had made its foray into the restaurant business. I knew that Got Kosher? enabled SoCal college students to keep kosher on campus, and that many families swore by its pretzel challah.
But I didn’t see it translating. A Got Kosher? restaurant sounded like prepackaged turkey sandwiches released from their saran wrap and thrown on plates for ten bucks. So I never went until last week, when a friend took me there early one evening to discuss WashU for her son, a rising high school senior.
There was little about the Got Kosher? dining experience that did not surprise me. The menu, to begin with, dissolved my expectations. A host of starters and entrees ranging from chicken couscous to Côte á l’Os render it diverse and intriguing – I want to come back. And who knew the restaurant had a strong Tunisian influence?
Well, how would I have known?
I went with one of their house specialties (all of which come with soup and either salad or fries): Pulled Beef Brisket Kansas-Style. The beef soup was fantastically rich in flavor and I devoured it. And the barbeque brisket—sweet, tender, succulent meat on a fabulous stirato bun. (Yes! First review of a place that got the bread right!) Even the fries were crispy.
It filled me up yet I wanted more. Having driven through Kansas City (where the ratio of people to BBQ restaurants is literally 80:1) multiple times without ever actually tasting its famous offerings, this became an experience of freedom, too. Wait, I don’t have to skip bread for eight days to taste freedom? Never mind…
The company was wonderful, too, and in GK’s soft light cast on wooden panels we stayed nearly two hours. At one point our conversation turned to the name: Got Kosher?
It does not just bug me that the brand name disguises the style; on a bad day, it’s gimmicky. Primarily, it just does not work as the name of a fancy Tunisian restaurant. Moreover, the restaurant alienates potential customers by betraying its commitment to kashrut in its title.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think kashrut (or any notion of Jewish identity for that matter) should necessarily be concealed. It’s more that Kosher in the name is a signifier of limitation or imitation – see Kosher Subway, for example. “Kosher” connotes even less of a distinctive style than “vegan” unless you’re talking deli or bakery. You wouldn’t go and get kosher food like you would order Chinese or Mexican. And when you have kosher in the name, you are eliminating clientele.
Here’s why: there’s a divide in Jews my age between those whose entire cultural identity comes from Judaism or variations of it (i.e. Sephardic, Israeli, Persian, Camp Ramah, etc.) and those whose cultural makeup contains totally alien elements. As I would tell my dinner companion, only some of my friends at WashU are Jewish, and only some of those don’t eat cheeseburgers. Leaving the bubble (for another bubble, of course, but still) changed who I am, and the name incites this discomfort with considering myself a Jew only, even if I am totally Jewish. To be recklessly reductive and maybe confusing, I have a life outside of Judaism even if I never depart from my Jewish sense of self.
I’m not suggesting that Jews who have jobs in entertainment, or law, or anywhere else in the secular world haven’t achieved a sense of cultural assimilation. I’m saying that restaurants intending to serve those Jews don’t need to advertise themselves as just kosher to reach them. Which would you prefer for taking a non-Jewish coworker to dinner: “Got Kosher?”, or something like, say, “Taste of Tunisia”?
Jews already have a reputation for being exclusive, so with a name that distinguishes itself as a Jewish establishment, Got Kosher? wards off the stranger in our midst, the mysterious Beverlywood Non-Jew. I imagine a 5-10% non-religious Jewish customer base would be found money for a kosher Pico Boulevard restaurant.
So why do so many Pico places insist on forgoing that margin? Would some Jewish people be uncomfortable eating at a kosher place that attracts non-Jewish clientele?
Who and what are we leaving out in our pride in being Jewish?
July 5, 2012 | 2:19 am
Posted by Louis Keene
I used to beg my mom to take us to Eilat Bakery on Friday afternoons, back when it was still nestled in the shadow of Pat’s on Glenville Drive. In those days it was a humble shop with minimal décor whose baked goods beckoned from a glass display case. My favorites were their truly delectable chocolate éclairs that oozed custard of impeccable viscosity. We would buy several, devour two and throw the rest in our fridge to microwave later.
That hole-in-the-wall iteration of Eilat was the classic Jewish bakery in my mind. Function over form; a category killer. I regret to say that my mom, a talented and willing dessert chef who usually didn’t need to buy challah or cookies, took me less often than I would have liked. Eventually we stopped going altogether, only sometimes gazing wistfully as we dipped out of the parking lot for Stan’s Produce.
The next thing I knew, Eilat Bakery had moved a few blocks eastward onto the corner of Pico and Canfield. The cavernous new location (at which they set up shop in late 2010) boasts high ceilings and a short patio; the glass cases are bigger than ever and display an ungodly assortment of pastries. And unlike the at-times cramped old store, the new one is not standing room only. In fact, the new Eilat bears a strong resemblance to Schwartz’s Bakery, another long-standing breakfast/bakery fusion located on Pico Blvd. about three quarters of a mile east.
The expansion of Eilat in the new location means it now features a restaurant kitchen that serves breakfast all day along with several dairy and fish salad, sandwich, and entrée selections. Still, it is arguably a kosher bakery’s most important duty to stay open as close as possible to candle-lighting, so it made sense that my first trip to the new Eilat Bakery would occur on a Friday afternoon after almost everything else had closed. (Indeed, a few harried customers shuffled in to grab their last-minute lechem mishneh as we awaited our food.) The order: Eggplant Parmesan on French baguette ($11.95).
However, the food was served fresh and yummy. The baguette was appropriately crispy if unspectacular; the eggplant was cooked perfectly, the melted cheese not too stringy, and the marinara piping hot and on point. The sandwich left me full, but not stuffed.
Though the bakery has perhaps set its sights on Schwartz’s target market with the venue change and restaurant menu, it has not quite committed to a reimagined identity. It’s unclear, for example, whether bakery and restaurant customers should stand in the same line. And despite attempts to practically and aesthetically justify use of its entire space, plenty of empty real estate remains—even in the glass cases.
I departed with the impression that Eilat Bakery had adopted this new business model against its better judgment. The old building had an understated, almost absentee style operating outside the reach of boisterous glatt marts and kosher takeout. It was clear what you were stepping into. Its new-and-improved version doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be, other than new and improved, since much of their efforts to rebrand seem only halfway finished.
I’m sure it continues to churn out quality sweets and famous challah, but what’s missing from Eilat 2.0 is the spirit of that cozy old place I once knew on Glenville. No one needs TVs – or even chandeliers for that matter – in a bakery. The disorganization and borderline cheeky prices are unfriendly, too. But most of all, I miss the traffic.
The palpable stress of Erev Shabbos was unique to Eilat Bakery before it moved. It could be stuffy and discombobulated in there, but rubbing elbows with other Yiddim trying to beat candle lighting made for some tremendous bustle! We only ever went to snatch a challah at the last minute, so that swarm became the Jewish bakery atmosphere I grew to cherish. Even in a rush, the éclairs augured the sweetness awaiting us when the sun ducked below the horizon.
They also left an indelible imprint on my memory, recalled when I buy one éclair to go on my way out. It’s delicious, yet it doesn’t taste the same even though I know it’s identical to the ones I used to love. But maybe the kids in line behind me will see this Eilat as Jewish bakery incarnate. If so, I hope it doesn’t require another relocation for them to appreciate it.