Chefs often speak of a magical moment during their childhood, when something they tasted — a food so new and bold that it shocked them — changed their life and sent them straight to the kitchen. For Micah Wexler, 29, the chef at West Hollywood’s Mezze, there was no such moment, just a childhood spent in his mother’s kitchen.
“It really had to do with all the cooking with my mom, with my grandmothers — mostly for the Jewish holidays. I think that really kind of sparked my interest,” the Los Angeles native said, relaxing at a table at Mezze on a recent afternoon. The restaurant, which opened in the spring offering a mix of innovative Mediterranean dishes along with some of Wexler’s favorite recipes and inventions, already has received positive notices from the Los Angeles Times’ notably tough critic, S. Irene Virbila.
Restaurant staff rush about, preparing the space for dinner service. Sun streams down through a huge skylight onto the potted olive trees in the middle of the elegant room. It’s a far cry from the kitchen in which Wexler spent Passovers helping prepare food for seders at his parents’ house.
With a childhood of home cooking and a local gig at Vincenti restaurant under his belt, Wexler went off to school at Cornell University and, after graduation, found himself in Europe, working at Righi La Taverna in Italy and for chef Martin Bersategui in Spain. Far from being intimidated by the foreign-ness of it, Wexler found the experience refreshing. “To be in an environment like that, where you’re really focusing on something that’s your passion, but also you’re training at the same time, is a really unique opportunity.”
Wexler’s experience in Europe landed him gigs in the kitchens of famed chef Joel Robuchon in New York and, later, Tom Colicchio at Craft Los Angeles. He has also worked locally at Melisse and Patina. The experience would prove valuable to Wexler, teaching him how to make his food stand out when he set off on his own.
“My time at Robuchon, really learning that philosophy ... that’s where the simplicity in the flavors and approach comes from. The whole philosophy of Robuchon at his restaurants is, ‘If I’m giving you a tomato, it should taste like the most intense bite of tomato you’ve ever had.’ ”
Wexler brings that simplicity to Mezze and marries it to his insistence on using all local ingredients. “The thing about Mezze, to me, is it’s really a California restaurant, at the end of the day. All of our products ... everything is from California — the produce, the meats, the fish.”
Although the cuisine is Mediterranean, it’s far from the standard fare. “There’s a reason why I don’t cook traditional,” Wexler said. “There are so many places in this city that cook a great Mediterranean meal ... I wanted to do something different.”
One thing you’ll find at Mezze that’s not a usual staple of Mediterranean cuisine is bacon. “I break a lot of rules,” said Wexler, whose version of his grandmother’s challah is also on the menu. “I want to break rules. I’m not interested in confining myself into a box or doing what’s expected.”
Stepping out of the box includes using some odd spices to liven things up. One of Wexler’s favorites is black lime. “They take limes and boil them in saltwater and dry them out for a period of anywhere from one to a few months. ... The boiling in saltwater kind of changes the composition of the limes a bit. They get all black inside, they’re completely dry, and it has this sort of funky, musty but really citrus-y scent to it still. ... You throw one or two of those into a braise and it sort of perfumes the whole thing.”
Whether he’s cooking up a twist on risotto using Israeli couscous or preparing his personal favorite, shakshouka, Wexler is constantly experimenting with flavors, usually to the delight of his diners. “I get Israeli people who come in here and say, ‘Oh you have shakshouka. Are you really sure you know how to make shakshouka?’ They always love it, they’re always really happy and impressed.”
The kitchen at Mezze is on full view to the patrons, something Wexler found was important at his previous stints in the restaurant world. “I spent a lot of time in my career working in open kitchens. ... From a chef’s perspective, it’s really great to kind of break down that wall and be able to see the guests’ response to your food.”
Wexler had plenty of input in the design of the restaurant, which is housed in the space formerly occupied by David Myers’ Sona. “My investor here is not just the guy I get money from,” Wexler said. “It’s somebody who cares about us, who’s invested in what we do.”
As for future plans, Wexler looks forward to one day stepping into the shoes of a chef-entrepreneur, like his mentors Colicchio and Robuchon.
“Our goal is to start a restaurant company. We’d like to have several restaurants,” Wexler said. But for now, “I’m really about making this a great restaurant and building my team and my infrastructure.
“My goal was always to establish myself in Los Angeles as a chef and a restaurateur.”
With Mezze up and running, he can consider his goal accomplished.
RECIPES FOR SUKKOT
Courtesy of chef Micah Wexler
ROASTED BEET SALAD
3 baby red beets
3 baby gold beets
3 baby striped beets
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 pound halloumi cheese
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried mint
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Trim the beets of their leaves and stems. Place each type of beet on a separate sheet of aluminum foil. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar and some salt to each. Fold the foil into packets. Place the three packets in a roasting pan and roast for 45 minutes or until beets are tender.
Remove beets from oven and allow to cool. Using a clean dish towel, rub off the skins and discard. Cut the beets in half; combine all the beets in a large mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup olive oil and remaining sherry vinegar.
Mix the yogurt with the lemon juice, dried mint, 1/4 cup olive oil and salt to taste.
Cut the halloumi into cubes and fry in a pan with remaining olive oil until golden.
To dress, place the marinated beets in a bowl and garnish with the yogurt dressing and fried halloumi.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
POMEGRANATE BRISKET WITH POMEGRANATE GREMOLATA
5 pounds brisket, whole
4 1/4 cups pomegranate juice
3 cups red wine
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
1 bunch parsley, chopped
3 ounces pine nuts, toasted
3 ounces pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Clean brisket of any silver skin or excess fat. Place brisket in a large container and marinate for 2 days with 4 cups pomegranate juice and red wine. Remove brisket from marinade, reserve liquid. Dry brisket.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Season brisket with salt and pepper; place in a roasting pan on stovetop. Over medium-high heat, sear brisket until browned. Cut carrots, onion and leeks into large pieces and place around the brisket with garlic cloves. Allow vegetables to cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Add the reserved marinade liquid, bay leaves and thyme; cover with aluminum foil and braise in preheated oven for 3 1/2 hours or until tender.
To make the gremolata: While brisket is cooking, combine chopped parsley, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, lemon zest and remaining 1/4 cup pomegranate juice; set aside.
For the last half hour of cooking, remove aluminum foil from brisket and allow to brown while glazing with the juices every 5 minutes.
When brisket is ready to be served, slice and place on a large platter. Spoon the vegetables and pan juice over the brisket, and top with the gremolata.
Makes 8 servings.