Posted by Rob Eshman
Jeff Morgan is winemaker and co-owner of Covenant Wines, based in Napa Valley, where he makes kosher wine under the Covenant, RED C and Landsman labels.
Rob Eshman: To start, let’s put aside, for a moment, the distinction between kosher and non-kosher wine and pose a more fundamental question: Why is wine so critical to Jewish life and celebration?
Jeff Morgan: In every ancient Mediterranean grape-growing community, wine was an integral part of the dietary regimen as well as religious practice. The Greeks and Romans ultimately lost faith in Dionysus and Bacchus, but they kept their vineyards. And their modern-day progeny continue to grow grapes and drink wine daily.
History led the Jews down a different path. In ancient Israel, viticulture was also an essential part of Jewish life. This is reflected in the Torah, where wine is regularly alluded to, beginning with Noah. We lost our land after the Roman destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago. Still, our ancestors managed to maintain their customs and religion throughout the ensuing millennia. For much of this time, Jews could not plant vineyards, and wine production was problematic.
RE: If you accept modern historical thinking that the Bible was composed around 500 B.C.E. by exiles returning from Babylon to Persian-controlled Palestine, did the wine rituals and customs reflect surrounding customs or were they passed-down ancient traditions, or both? Were they unique to Jews or common to other religions and peoples of that time? Is there scholarship on the roots of Judaism’s wine customs?
JM: Whatever your theory on the Bible’s origins, its stories bear witness to our people’s long history. Whether written or oral, Jewish wine tradition is the result of longstanding cultural practice.
Still, the Jewish relationship to wine has remained rooted in religious practice. Despite challenges in simply finding a bottle [or an amphora] of wine, our ancestors were able to maintain their wine traditions. I would venture to say that we Jews have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. In this light, how could wine be anything but critical to Jewish life?
RE: Is wine seen as a gateway to God in the way some tribes use hallucinogenics? Or was it simply a common beverage elevated by religious authorities?
JM: There’s some truth to both. You don’t need to be a talmudic scholar or have a Ph.D. in anthropology to understand that the mind-altering effects of [too much] alcohol might have caused early Jews to suspect that wine could open the door to an alternative reality.
You refer to wine as a “common” beverage. I would counter that it is a thoroughly “uncommon” one. The early rabbis recognized wine’s unique qualities and so incorporated wine into Jewish religious life. But I would hardly say they elevated it. It was a natural development.
RE: Was wine limited to ceremonial, ritual and festive use, or did it play a role in daily Jewish life?
JM: The people of every wine-growing nation drink wine daily. In this respect, why should the Jews in ancient Israel have been different? Wine aided in digestion by stimulating salivary glands. It also provided significant amounts of vitamin B, along with manganese and iron. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a glass of fine wine knows that it also can soothe mind and body at the end of a hard workday. In short, a daily dose of wine is and was a no-brainer!
RE: Islam bans alcohol and many Christian sects oppose it. Did Judaism ever give rise to a “temperance” movement?
JM: Not that I know of. How can you make Kiddush with “temperance”? Let’s remember that Kiddush [with wine] was legal even during the United States’ misguided experiment with Prohibition.
Rudd Vineyard. Photos by Steve Goldfinger
RE: So you’re saying the relationship of Jews and wine was codified in our holy books and customs. How did it translate to real world Jews in history? If the surrounding cultures opposed alcohol, did Jews follow suit? I noticed in Morocco, Jews owned the vineyards around Mogador.
JM: Well, we weren’t always so successful in maintaining our tradition. I believe the Muslims ripped out most of the vineyards in Israel once they took over back in the eighth century. I would hope that we benefited from a “benign neglect” attitude. During many of these historical periods, the “abstainers” were probably happy to know where they could find a good bottle of wine!
RE: And in Eastern Europe?
JM: It’s unlikely that the Jews in the shtetl had enough wine stashed away for daily enjoyment. It was easier to grow good wine grapes in Morocco than Poland. Their priority was to make certain enough Kiddush wine was available for Shabbat and other holy or festive occasions.
RE: And in the United States, how did the idea of sweet kosher wine come about?
JM: I guess Concord grapes are the culprits. New World Jewish immigrants adopted them 150 years ago; they were the only grapes around. A native American member of the species vitis labrusca, Concords, in my opinion, were never meant for wine. They are better for eating. Fermented, they have a “foxy” quality — that is, an earthy, musky flavor — that needs to be disguised with sugar. The wines of Israel and Europe traditionally were made with grapes from the species vitis vinifera, like Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example. Unlike Concords, these vinifera grapes are delicious when fermented dry.
RE: Passover is a holiday structured around wine — was that a Jewish innovation?
JM: I don’t believe so. As I’ve already said, most ancient Mediterranean cultures were celebrating important occasions with wine. Nonetheless, the Hebrew term for feast or banquet — mishteh — comes from the word lishtot, to drink. For me, this is further confirmation that wine has long held a pivotal place in Jewish celebration.
RE: Was there ever a strain in Judaism that opposed wine and alcohol consumption?
JM: I hope not.
RE: I think the Nazirites did. That didn’t last long.
JM: And Maimonides, no less, castigated the Nazirites for abstaining from wine, rather than just drinking in moderation.
RE: For all the embrace of wine in the Bible, there’s clear condemnation of drunkenness. “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest you die: It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations” (Leviticus 10:9). The message is: Enjoy wine, but not too much?
JM: There is a lot of common sense in the Bible. That message should be right up there with the Ten Commandments!
RE: Christianity uses wine as a sacrament — it is the blood of their savior. Does that idea have Jewish roots?
JM: Aside from some poetic license that might associate the color of wine with blood — and this is common to all wine-drinking cultures — I really have no sense of a wine and blood connection in Judaism. Sure, Christianity borrowed from Jewish tradition regarding wine, but I have no idea who came up with the blood thing. For the record, you can make Kiddush on white wine!
Rudd Vineyard is owned by Leslie Rudd, business partner of Jeff Morgan.
RE: The blessing of the wine does not use the word for wine. It simply refers to it as “the fruit of the vine.” But wine is so much more than that — the result of technique, fermentation, yeasts, sugars and other ingredients. Do you find a spiritual lesson in referring to it simply as “the fruit of the vine”?
JM: Wine is naturally blessed, or holy. Kiddush helps us experience or recognize the holy nature of special moments such as Shabbat. In the same way, we don’t bless just “the bread,” we bless “the bread brought forth from the earth.” Our prayers always make the connection between God, man and earth.
Maybe the wording of our blessing has to do with the fact that grapes are purely a creation of God, but wine requires human intervention. As a winemaker, I can tell you I pray a lot during the harvest. Sure, we humans make the wine. But we are not totally in control. I set things up as best as I can for success, but someone else is driving the wine train.
RE: What percentage of Jews will drink only kosher wine?
JM: That number probably coincides with the number of Jews that are “Sabbath-observant” or [in this country] Orthodox. My guess is, maybe, 10 to 15 percent.
RE: How do you explain the boom in quality kosher wine — of which, truth be told, Covenant stands as a shining example?
JM: Thank you for the compliment. It’s all about demand and supply. A more sophisticated public wants to drink better. And wines the world over — kosher or not — are better than they used to be. Better viticulture; better winemaking across the board.
RE: As a winemaker, how do you explain the laws of kosher wine: Are they there to make wine better, or to keep Jews separate, or what?
JM: I really don’t presume to able to explain the laws of kashrut. But my guess is that they are linked more to religious practice and societal control than wine quality.
RE: Kosher wine gets a bad rap because people assume the process of pasteurization, what is called in Hebrew mevushal, degrades the wine. Do you agree?
JM: If so-called wine experts knew just a little bit about kosher wine, they would know that it doesn’t have to be pasteurized at all. In fact, most of the fine kosher wine coming from the 300-plus wineries in Israel today is not pasteurized (or mevushal, in Hebrew). The same goes for the best French and Spanish kosher wines. Our kosher Covenant wines from California have never been pasteurized either. In fact, they are not even filtered, as are so many other wines — both kosher and not kosher — today.
In the old days, they really boiled the wine. That probably made it undrinkable. Today flash pasteurization — which rapidly heats and cools the juice or wine — has far less negative effect. In fact, sometimes heating can enhance aromas, making them more fruit forward. There is nothing simple about wine — except drinking it. Let’s just say flash pasteurization involves complex technology that, when used properly, can produce excellent wine.
RE: So if you could tell contemporary Jews one thing about wine, that would be?
JM: Wine, as our heritage demonstrates, is for every day — not only the Sabbath and holy days. If you are not drinking good wine in moderation at most meals, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of life.
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August 22, 2013 | 12:41 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
If L.A. has such great kosher chefs, why don’t we have at least one great kosher restaurant?
This month, two L.A. kosher chefs competed on separate episodes of the popular Food Network show, “Chopped!” -- and both won. So our chefs can win national cooking competitions, but our city can’t sustain a great local kosher fine dining place?
Katsuji Tanabe, the chef/owner of Mexikosher on Pico Blvd. and Michael Israel, the chef/owner of the M.O.E. Better Deli food truck and blogger at Kosher Bacon, each took home the $5,000 prize in tough competitions.
Mexikosher features Tanabe’s bright, original takes on traditional Mexican food—but it is essentially a take-out place, not a restaurant. And Israel, who together with his wife Emily run a non-kosher pop-up called Fress, devotes his day time hours to his rolling food truck—again, excellent, but not exactly fine dining.
LA’s best kosher restaurant is Tierra Sur, which is a good hour or more north in Oxnard. It’s worth the drive— but it’s not exactly convenient. (Side note: the last time I was there, Pat Sajak was sitting at the next table dining with a beautiful woman. Pat Sajak. Go figure.)
As for LA, there are some nice fancier places—Pats, Shilos- and many good simpler kosher restaurants and take-out joints. I’d put Ta’eem Grill’s schwarma and matbucha up against any in New York, or Tel Aviv. But a chef-driven, fresh, local and inventive restaurant that truly reflects all the exciting things happening in kosher food and wine? Evidently the world’s 3rd largest Jewish community can’t sustain it.
It’s not because we don’t have the cooking talent. Both Tanabe and Israel have solid chef creds. Tanabe worked in high-end starred restaurants, and Israel trained in Europe, New York and the Culinary Institute of America. And winning “Chopped!” is not chopped liver. There are four contestants. Each must make an appetizer, main course and dessert using a mix of ingredients that they see just seconds before the cooking begins. In Israel’s case, the contestants had to make an appetizer course using blood sausage, smoked pork, ginger snaps and Savoy cabbage. They can draw from a well-stocked pantry, but they only have 20 minutes to a half hour to cook. It’s challenging, nerve-wracking and slightly gross.
Israel, who writes the Kosher Bacon blog at jewishjournal.com, stuck to his theme of modernizing Jewish food. He made a version of matzo ball soup with crushed ginger snaps standing in for matzo meal. It looked like a Mad magazine version of iles flotantes, but it won points for originality.
In the next round the mystery box revealed halibut, orange flavored drink, pepperoni risotto and Chinese celery. Israel made a beautifully presented seared halibut topped with a salad of fresh apple and celery. That, he said, was to represent the food of Passover.
For dessert he took guanabana nectar, white chocolate chips, pecans and chipotle chilis and made a white chocolate kugel.
“You’re really keeping with the Jewish thing, aren’t you,” said a judge.
It worked for him: Israel won. He said he would use the prize money to take his wife Emily on a trip to Israel—sticking to the Jewish thing to the end.
I wrote about Tanabe’s equally impressive victory here. Both men were cool under pressure, showed some sass, and both were intensely competitive. Just the qualities you need to open a fine dining kosher restaurant in LA.
So, who’s going to back them?
August 21, 2013 | 1:31 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
By the time Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgot took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night, the 16,000 seat amphitheatre was nearly packed.
If you were Jewish, it was friends and neighbors night. There was so much schmoozing and waving, it was easy to mistake the concert for a day in synagogue.
“This counts for Rosh Hashanah,” one woman told me. “This is instead of going the first day.”
It kind of was. Cantor Helfgot is the virtuoso tenor at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan. He is Orthodox, but no-kidding-around Orthodox, with the beard, the full black coat and tails, a large black kipa. How religious is he? He is just 44, and already a grandfather.
Perlman is Perlman. Yo Yo Ma. Schindlers List. Every symphony orchestra in the world. And, on occasion, klezmer.
The two were accompanied by members of the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, led by Hankus Netsky.
Netsky’s not young, but he is far younger than many if not most of the people in the audience. Years ago he took it upon his shoulders to revive and perform the Yiddish repertoire. With Perlman he created the album “Eternal Echoes,” on which the concert was based.
The concert was a blend of klezmer and liturgical music, Romanian dances and Psalms. The shabbas before the wedding, and the party after.
The klezmer was raucous, the crowd was subdued. Maybe it was the classical setting, the members of the L.A. Phil—Perlman called them his “classical mishpocha”—seated in stolid order on the stage. Maybe it was the jarring shifts between party music and prayers. Whatever it was, this was an audience of well-behaved Jews.
They didn’t dance in the aisles. They didn’t stand and dance in their seats. There was no between song toasts with schnapps, no smell of garlic and schmaltz in the air, no sweat, no stomping and no shouts. The music of the shtetl had made it to the big time, and so have we.
Instead of banquet tables of kichel and herring, there were picnic baskets of chicken breast and white wine. If Cantor Helfgot waved his hands to get the crowd clapping, they followed, but then soon stopped. The audiencesat, and listened, and applauded when each song was over.
The English translations of the Yiddish and Hebrew words appeared on the giant screens, turning them into the world’s most convenient prayer books.
I couldn’t help but think back to the composers and lyricists of these songs, the original players and singers, half-crazed, half-starved dreamers in their desperate villages, pouring their souls into the music, filling each note with the yearning for safety, for Zion, for salvation, for a meal. Men whose souls burned as bright as the full moon above the Bowl, who would have danced across the chairs, and grabbed and kissed the beautiful clarinetist, in her bright red dress.
But we are well-behaved now, polite. We laughed as Perlman kibitzed.
Netsky described one tune as particularly “catchy.”
“Did you say ‘catchy’ or ‘kvetchy’?” Perlman asked.
“Catchy and kvetchy describes a lot of Jewish music,” Netsky shot back.
The klezmer was catchy, but it didn’t catch. Somewhere between Poland and the Hollywood Hills, we settled down.
Cantor Helfgot's voice was transcendent, but few seemed to be transported—no tears, no “Oys! No cries of joy.
They ended with “My Yiddishe Mama,” and there was applause, but already people were heading for their cars in the neatly stacked parking. Perlman, who arrived on stage in an electric scooter, stayed seated in it throughout the performance. During teh final applause he made no pretense of driving off and then back on. With a bit of wicked humor, he told the crowd to imagine there had just been eight curtain calls, and the musicians would consent to an encore.
Then the cantor sang, “Adir Hu" in Hebrew. The English translation flashed on the screen-- Rebuild Your house speedily, he sang-- as people began heading home.
August 16, 2013 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Michael's blog at jewishjournal.com, Kosher Bacon, reinterprets and reimagines the encyclopedia of Jewish foods and ingredients with a modern sensibility. He and his wife Emily have done the same in the L.A. area food truck, MOE Eggrolls, which rolls around town serving up kosher Montreal style egg rolls. And-- because they have sooo much time on their hands-- they also hold a weekly pop up at the Wine House, Fress.
You can catch Michael on Chopped this Sunday on the Food Network. Hopefully he'll continue the "Chopped" winning streak established by another Jewish Journal contributor and LA kosher chef, Katsuji Tanabe, who took home the $5,000 first prize last week. Go Michael!
Here's what I wrote about Michael when his Kosher Bacon blog appeared:
Last week, we launched our newest blog at jewishjournal.com. It’s called “Kosher Bacon.”
Just about everyone who hears the name is offended by it. They assume we’re being cheeky just for the sake of provocation. After all, would we call a funeral blog “Shivah Me Timbers”? Would we call a dating blog “Plenty o’ Shiksas”?
No—but in this case there’s a perfectly good explanation.
A few months ago, I met a chef named Michael Israel for coffee in Culver City. He chose the place—The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa, a small cafe across from Sony Studios where the centerpiece is a huffing, puffing coffee roaster and the family behind the counter manages to turn out one perfect cup after another with exacting standards and zero attitude.
Michael struck me as the same sort of person. In 2005, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Italy, then at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star Per Se in New York City—considered by many the best restaurant in the country.
“It was the best food education I could ever get,” Michael told me. “The standards were so high, and the focus on detail was incredible.”
After several years, Michael, eager to work for himself, decided to move on. He ended up in Los Angeles, where he started a kosher food truck business, M.O. Eggrolls. In many ways, it was a return to his roots. In his native Montreal, evidently, eggrolls, stuffed with a variety of fillings and fried, are the rage.
The truck has been a success. Not only is he offering a convenient fried food—“convenience” and “fried” are practically food groups in America—but Michael’s craftsmanship and high standards ensure that the quality of the eggrolls is far above fast food.
The kosher food truck was Michael’s first step in his journey to reconcile his love of food and cooking with his deepening Jewish observance. Step two has been the blog—that’s what he came to discuss at The Conservatory.
“I’ve struggled,” Michael said, “with these two parts of me.”
There’s the part of him that really cares about great food, about curing his own meat, about sourcing the best-quality ingredients—the part of him that wants to cook and eat and try everything great. The part that knows just what a strip of bacon can do for a coq au vin. And then there’s the part of him that honors his tradition.
In many ways, Michael is the poster child for the next generation of Jewish foodie. For him, kosher is necessary, but it’s not sufficient: Food has to be excellent; it has to make at least a nod toward ethics and sustainability; it has to strive for Per Se, not a temple sisterhood buffet.
Michael is a young father, hardworking and soft-spoken—he doesn’t come across as a snob or an evangelist. And he is not alone. Last week, I attended a Southern barbecue dinner hosted by Pico-Robertson’s Kosher Supper Club. I expected to find a room of elderly Jews complaining about the mediocre food (“And such small portions!”), but instead I found 20- and 30-somethings listening to Best Coast, enjoying excellent kosher versions of grits and shrimp (sea bass) and greens and ham hocks (home-smoked turkey) prepared by chefs Katsuji Tanabe and Daly Thompson. (Tanabe is the Japanese-Mexican owner of MexiKosher on Pico Boulevard. Thompson owns Memphis Bar-BQ Catering and used to own a restaurant called The Pig next to the Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn on La Brea Avenue. It closed.) Like Michael, they are dissatisfied with much of what passes as “gourmet” kosher—they want to show, if only through their dining group—that it could be better.
Michael’s “Kosher Bacon” blog shares that goal.
“I just want people to know they can cook ‘Jewishly’ and celebrate Judaism,” he said. “You don’t have to choose between a good meal and a kosher one.”
In other words, you can find a way to infuse kosher food with the same power, the same umami, the same indispensible, ineluctable attraction … as bacon.
The way Michael plans to do this is by reviewing the more than 300 recipes in Gil Marks’ definitive book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
“My goal,” Michael wrote in his initial entry, “is to cook every recipe in Gil Marks’ brilliant book, with a new approach and an undying respect for everyone who has contributed to Jewish cuisine.
“Discovering ‘Encyclopedia of Jewish Food’ has changed my life as a cook. I have always wanted to explore classic Jewish cuisine and find ways to contribute to its modernization. I am a firm believer that any craftsman, whether carpenter or chef, must understand the classics before trying to create something different. Gil Marks codified historic Jewish recipes. With the help of this text, I am able to study classic Jewish cuisine and begin creating new recipes.”
August 15, 2013 | 2:18 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
This story by Judy Zeidler about cooking for an empty nest really hit me hard. Judy is a glass-half-full bundle of enthusiasm, and I suppose her children follow suit. Their brood departs, they adjust their recipes, move on. I find myself not so... adjustable.
Our son left for college two years ago and I still haven't got used to cooking for three. Now our daughter is on the cusp of college, and I'm facing cooking for two. It just...sucks. A big part of the joy of cooking is the joy of feeding-- at least feeding the people you love. That's what gives me the energy to look forward to shopping and cooking after a full day at work. That's often been my recreation after a full day at work.
Long before we had kids, I loved to cook dinner for just the two of us. Aren't I just going back to that? Yes, and no. Ever since we filled those two seats at the dinner table, anything less than four feels a bit empty. I find myself making faster, simpler things, the kind of dishes that scale down from four servings to two but still feel like a meal.
Nicoise salad is one of those dishes. Almost every week, when the kids filled the table, I'd make one with whatever vegetables were freshest. Now I'm pushing to make a slighty smaller version-- though I still find myself making enough at least four, out of habit.
Nicoise is easy because we always have a can of tuna or a hunk of wild cold-smoked salmon, and eggs. You open, arrange with whatever good vegetables are around (lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, peppers, avocado), add capers and olives, lemon and olive oil-- done. Easy-- but not perfect.
To make it even better, here are five tips I've learned over the years:
1. Use olive-oil packed tuna or use a lot of oilive oil and lemon directly on your tuna. Dry clumps or shreds of tuna in the salad feel like eraser in your mouth. Tuna needs moisture.
2. Make a simple dressing. Make a dressing of 1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice, three parts great olive oil, salt, pepper and a lump Dijon mustard. Keep it simple but strong.
3. Warm potatoes, warm eggs, cold dressing. Boil potatoes and slice while still warm. I scrub but don't peel them if the skins are thin. Place them still warm onto the salad, and pour the cool dressing directly onto them. It absorbs and each potato becomes a small salad in itself.
4. Don't skimp on capers, or olives. Capers and olives are the salt of your salad. Rinse the capers briefly to get rid of excess salt or vinegar, then scatter like salt across the surface. Use whatever good olives you have, not the canned California type. I prefer kalamata olives in my Nicoise. Saltier and meatier. If they're not pitted, warn your guests.
5. Eggs slightly undercooked, beans slightly overcooked. Soft eggs with bright yolks taste better and separate ypur salad from the stuff they serve at the cafe in your office building. And green beans that are one smidge softer than al dente soak up the dressing better, melt in with the rest. Place your eggs in cold water and bring to boil. Reduce heat a bit and continue on a gentle boil for two and a half minutes. Drain and let sit. When ready to serve peel and slice in half. As for the beans, blanch in boiling water until very tender, just past bright green. Immediately plunge into cold water, drain and add to sald.
I'll put the recipe below. It serves four. Or, with a bit of melancholy, two.
1 head butter lettuce or other green (arugula, spring mix, etc)
1 handful green beans, trimmed
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, cubed
1 yellow , red or orange pepper, cored and diced
1/2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed.
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 c. olive oil
salt and pepper
Make the dressing: squeeze lemon juice into a small powl. Add mustard and stir well. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and whisk, shake or stir briskly. Taste and adjust with more lemon or oil.
Fill a 2 quart saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Add green beans and boil until very tender, remove and plunge into cold water. Drain and dry.
Add eggs to boiling water. Boil for ten minutes, remove and place in cold water.
Add potatoes to the boiling water and cook until very tender.
In the meantime, in a large rather flat bowl, place lettuce, then arrange the vegetables in groups on top. Place tuna in center, sliced potatoes and eggs around that. Sprinkle with capers and olives. Pour dressing over all. Serve.
August 6, 2013 | 10:19 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Katsuji Tanabe is the onion of kosher chefs-- every time you think you've figured him out, you find there;'s a whole other layer.
Tonight Katsuji held a party at the Mexican Consulate near downtown Los Angeles to screen the episode of the Food Network show, "Chopped!" on which he appears as a contestant.
I first met Katsuji when he was the chef at the kosher steakhouse Shilo on Pico. He stood out. Katsuji grew up in Mexico to Japanese and Mexican parents. He came to America at age 19 with no money, and worked his way into some of the finest restaurants. He isn't Jewish, but he was intrigued by the challenge of cooking kosher. It was clear he was cooking at a level that went unappreciated by many patrons. Katsuji was working up hand-chopped aged burgers with cashew milk blue cheese and authentic Baja style tacos with homemade habenero salsa. The clientele just wanted well-done steak.
Katsuji moved on to open his own place, Mexikosher, also on Pico, where those homemade salsas are center stage. It's inexpensive, delicious, and maybe the most inadvertantly healthy Mexican food in LA-- no cheese, sour cream, lard. "99 percent of Mexican restaurants aren't kosher," is the place's motto. "We are the 1 percent. Occupy Mexikosher."
Katsuji's first on screen appearance on a food show was in a web series on jewishjournal.com, The Chosen Dish. He made Thai Tuna Tempura Matzoh Balls. The Food Ntework heard of him and made him a contestant on "Chopped."
About 60 friends, family and colleagues gathered in a function room at the Consulate to watch the show with him. Katsuji was his ebullient self-- dressed in fancier street clothes, his hair slicked back, he rushed to hug people and introduce friends to one another. The crowd was as eclectric as the chef. I met an attorney named Ottavio Olivas who moonlighted as the creator/chef of a pop-up called Ceviche Project. I met a producer from the Travel Channel who worked with Katsuji on his next top secret TV project. I met a guy who plays hockey with Katsuji.
"Oh, he's crazy competitive," the guy said. "He plays in a league, like four times a week."
Before the show started we ate hors d'oeuvres, including one based on something Katsuji invented for the show-- schwarma mole. A mixologist poured a drink of tequila, pear liquor, ginger liquor, lime, soda and mint, with-- as a nod to Mexikosher-- a Manischewitz floater. There was also lots of beer-- Katsuji likes to party.
Once we sat to watch the show, the Mexican Japanese Christian kosher cooking hockey playing chef's competitive streak really became apparent.
He trash-talked his opponents ("His plate looks like dog food."). He got in their heads. ("I'm crazy enough to open a Mexican kosher restaurant, what can't I do?") He talked smack. ("You look tired," he said to one chef. "You should just quit.")
But what he really did was cook like a demon. The gimmick of "Chopped!" is you have to make three different courses from three different sets of bizarre ingredients. You have 10 seconds once the ingredients are revelaed to start cooking, and 20 minutes to cook. The completed food sits for 45 minutes before the three-judge panel tastes it. The day goes from 5:30 am - 11 pm.
"They have you meet at a Starbucks in the morning. They want to get you hyped," said Katsuji. Beforehand a friend had tipped him off that he should just drink water all day, no coffee. He said that helped him stay calm as the other chefs got more and more wired.
The results were three inventive dishes that drew less on his kosher knowledge and more on his mad Mexican cooking skills. If the hockey game in handy it was in being able to survive and long slog of competitition.
And when the onscreen announcer declared Katsuji the winner, the crowd in the Consulate erupted in applause. Katsuji stood in front of the screen, cradling his toddler daughter, beaming.
"Do you think you'll get first place?" the TV announcer had asked the chef.
"Is there anything else?" he asked right back.
August 2, 2013 | 11:27 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Wild salmon season is here.
That means we have hit the ethical food sweetspot, where the most sustainable overlaps with the most delicious. Add one more circle to the Venn diagram-- it's kosher!-- and you have a Foodaism trifecta in our home. From June to September, we eat wild salmon until we grow gills.
King, or chinook, salmon, the fattiest and most expensive, can run you close to $40/pound at Santa Monica Seafood. But you can find coho or sockeye for $13 or so per pound at Costco or sometimes at Whole Foods. Sustainable, delicious, kosher and affordable. More salmon, more!
The only problem, then, is to avoid WSF-- Wild Salmon Fatigue. I don't suffer from it, but my kids, over the years, surely have. There are worse problems in life, but this one is solvable: switch up the recipes and techniques.
This week I discovered a new technique. At the new Venice restaurant Saltair they poach salmon in olive oil. Saltair by the way, is the best new restaurant I've been to, and far exceeds Sun of a Gun, Hungry Cat, and other perhaps more chic seafood places. Their grilled whole striped bass is simply a superb meal, crispy skin, fragrant flesh, sense memories of an Italian outdoor beachside lunch.
The sockeye and coho are especially good for olive oil poaching as they are lean fish, and the oil adds to their richness. Serve simply with lemon and you have an simple, fancy dinner. At Saltair they accompany the salmon with fried artichokes, similar to the ones in Rome's Jewish Ghetto. You would think oil-poached salmon with fried artichokes would be too much oil. It's not.
I served mine with a timbale of kale and potato topped with goat yogurt and Turkish marash pepper. The cool, tart yogurt is a nice balance to the oil in the dish.
To poach in olive oil, you'll need a thermometer to help you keep the temperature at a just-bubbling 180 degrees. Otherwise, all you need is good quality olive oil.
And wild salmon.
[RECIPE] Olive Oil-Poached Salmon
Adapted from “Salt to Taste” by Marco Canora (Rodale)
Time: About 40 minutes
10 sprigs fresh thyme
4 fresh bay leaves or 1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
About 3 cups olive oil, more to cover fish
1 1/2 - 2 pounds salmon fillet, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
2 lemons, one cut into wedges for garnish
Salt and black pepper to taste
Minced parsley, chives or another fresh herb, for garnish.
1. Combine thyme, rosemary, garlic and oil in a pot just wide enough to hold fish in a single layer without touching. (When fish is added, oil should cover it, so it is better to use more oil than not enough.) Peel 1 lemon, using a vegetable peeler to remove yellow part only, in strips. Add peel to oil. Season fish on both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Fit skillet with a deep-frying thermometer and heat oil to 180 degrees over medium-low heat. Reduce heat and monitor temperature, adjusting until temperature is a stable 180, with small bubbles occasionally rising to surface.
3. When temperature is stable, add fish. Oil temperature will drop, so raise heat slightly (never above medium-low) just until it reaches 180 again; then reduce.
4. Cook fish 13 to 15 minutes, until top is completely opaque and flakes easily with a fork. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels, let drain. Place on serving platter, sprinkle with herbs, and serve immediately with lemon wedges.
July 25, 2013 | 11:26 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
I walked into Barnyard with a chip on my shoulder.
Barnyard is the new Venice restaurant from Chef Jesse Barber. It's very New Venice: farm-to-table food, hot chef with even hotter resume (Tasting Kitchen, French Laundry), local beers, wines that appear on no wine Apps, and of course a dedicated spouse carrying some part of the load (in this case, Celia Barber is the GM).
It's decorated in an Urban Farmer aesthetic-- a lot of wood and metal, but very clean, with plenty of air and space. If you're nostalgic for the old Smith and Hawken store on Beverly Drive, you'll feel right at home. We have come a long way as a culture, from when "barnyard" implied flies, manure and horsesweat, to "Barnyard" evoking an upscale, conscientious eating experience. Can Calvin Klein's "Barnyard Pour Homme" be far behind?
I liked Barnyard. The look, the food, that local beer, the tattooed waiter who seems to read more food blogs than I do. My only problem with the place was this: Memory.
I was 20 when I met Helen. I was sub-renting a studio apartment in Jim Morrison's old building on Horizon (every building nearby claimed to be Jim Morrison's old building) when I walked into a storefront just across Pacific Ave, The sign above the window said "House of Teriyaki Donuts." Inside a young Korean woman was working furiously, trying to communicate with her Latino cooks and her rock star wannabe waiter. The menu had a section for teriyaki, a section for breakfast, and, as a side order, donuts. It turns out Helen did not invent the teriyaki donut, she just ran out of room on her sign.
H.O.T. as it was called offered a breakfast special: 2 eggs, hash browns, veggie bacon, toast and coffee for $2.99. At those prices, I saw a lot of Helen.
But the money wasn't even the most amazing thing about H.O.T. The food was. The cook was an older Latino named Francisco who had worked loyally, for years, at a previous Venice institution, the Layfayette Coffee Shop at 1219 Ocean Front Walk. Lafayette thrived in the '50's and 60's, serving old Jews and Beatniks sardine sandwiches for 75 cents and its exotic "Hawaiian Club House"-- ham, pineapple ring, cheese-- for three bits as well. I would put Francisco's poached eggs right up against a French Laundry sous vide egg any day. And his hash browns were crisp-dry on the outside, moist on the inside, with edges so crunchy you could use the loose shards as toothpicks.
I liked that the same guy who cooked for Ginsberg and Morrison was cooking for me. I liked the groggy, post-high, post-sex, post poetry-jam, post-parent's money crowd that sleepwalked into the place, dining long and groggily as Helen bustled about, refilling coffee cups, whsipering good morning, taking orders. H.O.T. sustained a lot of souls.
Eventually Helen expanded to a new location, just a bit south, and H.O.T. became H.O.T II, then Benice. The name fit: it seemed to be Helen's entire philosophy. She was always just...nice.
The new place was like the old place, just bigger. Helen added avocado to the menu, and more soy meats, and I think at one point she dropped the donuts. I had married by then, and then had kids, and our family became regulars. My wife and I could chart our age by our orders there: first it was eggs and hashbrowns and coffee and donuts. Later it was one egg, a side of tomato, avocado and dry toast and decaf. Our kids started with chocolate milk and syrupy French toast, and eventually were ordering coffee and veggie burgers. While we waiting for our food, we played table football, with the jelly packets.
One day my son went out and bought one of his first meals with his own money. When he told me he ate at H.O.T. II, I thought I could hear the angels' chorus singing "Sunrise, Sunset." I almost cried.
Then, about a year ago, I heard Benice was closing. That weekend we ate a final breakfast there. Helen wasn't tearful-- she told me she was just tired. All those refills. All those orders. Enough.
She said she couldn't believe how tall our kids were-- she always said that-- and then we just said goodbye. Instantly, I missed the place.
A while later, Barnyard appeared.
What can I say? Barnyard is everything we want our restaurants to be-- thoughtful about food, careful with ingredients, casual but serious.
We ate Yellowtail Crudo, spiced with mustard seed, sparkling fresh and local. The grilled bread is also local, a tall stack served with a strawberry compote and fresh butter. The fish of the day was sea bass, perfectly poached and served with avocado and a light cilantro and chili-inflected sauce. Barber also serves what he calls Pilota. The only pilota I've seen is a kind of risotto with pork and butter and cheese, but Barber makes his with fresh tomato, peas, and pecorino, with a balsamic-rich stock. It's high-end vegetarian comfort food.
All this food, for four, with a couple glasses of wine, cost $189. It's not expensive for what it is-- you'll pay the same for that quality anywhere in L.A.-- but, newsflash, in the New Venice, a meal for $2.99 is as easy to find as a home for $299,000.
Now here's where I mourn the memory of things past: the way Helen greeted every guest as they walk in (Barber? He's that quiet dude in the kitchen). I miss a place I can pop into without thinking twice, knowing it will just hit the spot, nothing fancy but good and cheap. I miss seeing the parade of locals, because everyone, from the homeless panhandler to the surfer chicks to the walk-street producer, could afford Benice. I miss Francisco's poached eggs. I miss being able to think back all the way to Lafayette Cafe. I miss the endless refills.
Mostly, I guess, I miss watching my kids grow up.
1715 Pacific Ave, Venice, CA 90291
NOTE: Barnyard is not kosher. But it is Foodaism-recommended.