March 18, 2009
Tel Aviv Grill Comes to Encino
Itzik Hagadol knows how to “open up a table,” as they say in Israel.
The restaurateur, whose real name is Itzik Luzon, has a reputation in Tel Aviv for lavishing his guests in Middle Eastern style — serving up an abundance of food that includes heaping platefuls of salads. After 14 years of booming business in Yaffo, Luzon has brought his popular restaurant, Shipudei Itzik Hagadol (Big Itzik’s Skewers), to the Encino Commons with help from his son, Amos, and their business partner Michael Fainman. Itzik Hagadol Grill opened its doors to a parking lot thronged with people on March 3.
The restaurant begins with an Israeli variation on the American buffet, which Luzon learned while working for years at Shipudei Tzipora in Bat Yam. Patrons are charged $9 each for an unlimited array of more than 20 colorful Middle Eastern salads — including grilled eggplant, pickled carrots, chopped liver, hummus, Israeli salad, Turkish salad, sautéed mushrooms and roasted potatoes — as well as falafel and laffa, a Middle Eastern flatbread served straight from a taboon oven.
Most grill items are a la carte, ranging in price from $18 to $24 for two skewers of locally procured meats like turkey shishlik, lamb, veal sweetbreads or chicken thighs; two skewers of foie gras will set diners back $60. (For the adventurous eater, there’s chicken hearts and turkey testicles.)
Other grilled entrées include filet mignon, lamb chops and Chilean sea bass.
While not kosher, Itzik Hagadol only serves meat from animals considered kosher according to Jewish law.
Karen Marcus ate at Itzik two nights in a row last week. The native Angeleno, a self-described foodie, had been to the flagship restaurant several times and was excited when an announcement about the grill’s opening went up on the Encino shopping square’s marquee in January.
“It’s even better than Israel,” she said, between bites of grilled portobello mushrooms, which she said tasted like a vegetarian version of filet mignon. “The food is equally as excellent but the ambiance is better; it’s spacier, newer, more upscale.”
“We’re famous all over the world,” said Itzik Luzon, who estimates that his Yaffo restaurant serves about 1,000 customers a day.
He added that many of his American customers pay a visit each time they travel to Israel — some having come for eight or more years.
“A customer said to me the other night, ‘The Israeli tourism office will sue you. You’re causing the tourism to Israel to go down because you opened up here,’” Fainman said.
The restaurant is enjoying significant buzz in the L.A. Israeli community, whose dining choices have been increasing in recent years with the addition of Shalvata Cafe in Encino and Aroma Bakery & Cafe and Hummus Bar & Grill in Tarzana. However, Amos, Luzon’s son, says Itzik Hagadol is not likely to be a rival since it serves different dining needs.
“I think there’s room for everyone to do well here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of America.”
Amos Luzon, 32, grew up working at his father’s Yaffo restaurant from the age of 15, doing everything from washing dishes to repairing electrical appliances. He and his family moved to the San Fernando Valley several months ago to run the new restaurant with Fainman. Once the business is on its feet, Amos said his father plans to return to Israel with the chefs and laffa specialist who were brought from Israel to train the Encino kitchen staff.
“We built our reputation in Israel on shefa [abundance], quality and the best hospitality,” he said. “And we’re going to duplicate that here.”
Itzik Hagadol Grill, 17201 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 784-4080. Open Saturday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight.