March 16, 2010
A Touch of France in Pico-Robertson
Kosher food is wrongly stigmatized as being boring and bland because of the limitations the laws of kashrut impose on chefs. The prohibitions against eating certain animals and mixing milk and meat mean no cream sauce or butter for the meat dishes, no shellfish and — horror of horrors — no bacon. It all seems like a monumental challenge, kind of like
“Project Runway” for food, only instead of making a couture dress out of a flour sack, cooks have to create an interesting, appetizing meat menu without butter or cream. Julia Child would be horrified.
Then again, Julia Child never got to eat at Delice Bistro.
Located on Pico Boulevard just west of La Cienega Boulevard, Delice Bistro lures its patrons with the promise of “Fine French Organic Kosher Food.” This is particularly noteworthy at this moment, as Delice owner Julien Bohbot has decided to keep the restaurant open during Passover this year, with adaptations to accommodate the holiday. I did not experience the Passover menu, however.
Before I ate there, I wondered: Is it possible? Could a kosher restaurant really deliver gourmet flavor while being limited by the laws of kashrut? I was about to find out — along with my fiancé and his 11-year-old daughter, two of the toughest food critics I know.
Delice Bistro was built as an extension of Delice Bakery, a kosher dairy bakery. The atmosphere is immediately welcoming and somewhat reminiscent of a modern Paris bistro.
While I wasn’t a big fan of the massive Eiffel Tower in the middle of the restaurant, I did feel the place had warmth and charm. The service was friendly and helpful from the moment we arrived.
The meal started with bread and a complimentary plate of hummus, a tomato dip and bean salad. The hummus was tasty, but I could have done without the tomato dip, which tasted like unseasoned tomato paste. The waiter, knowing I was with The Jewish Journal, offered us a few of their signature appetizer dishes to share. The hearts of palm salad with avocado was particularly delicate and delicious.
While we waited for our main courses, Bohbot joined us at our table. He was born and raised in Morocco, moving to Paris at 17 to study the restaurant business. He has drifted in and out of the food service industry ever since; at one point, he was maitre d’ at the legendary L’Orangerie on La Cienega. He left the restaurant business to become a real estate broker but eventually found that he missed the excitement of running a restaurant.
“I couldn’t find a good kosher bakery in the area,” he said, “so I opened Delice Bakery. I’ve been open next door for eight years — successful, thank God. Then everybody says to me, ‘You have this good bakery, why don’t you open a nice restaurant?’ ”
So Bohbot opened Delice Bistro. “I did this only for the Jewish community, and I brought a lot of Jewish people back to kashrut,” he said, explaining that his goal was to create a delicious, no-compromises kosher option.
This proved a very successful business model until the economic downturn took hold.
“When I first opened, I was very, very busy,” he said. “You couldn’t get in without a reservation three days in advance. Then the market went down, and suddenly people weren’t coming. I had to cut down 50 percent of my employees. We’ve had a hard time these past nine months.”
Bohbot spoke openly about his troubles in the close-knit observant Jewish community, and customers returned. Because of this, Delice Bistro has remained open — for the time being, at least. “I talked to people. I told them, if I don’t have your support, you’re going to lose this restaurant. I’ll have to shut it down.”
Bohbot reiterated his hopes that the Jewish community will rally around Delice Bistro to keep it open.
“I think we have created something very, very nice here. ... I spent a million dollars here to make something nice for the Jewish community, a kosher restaurant they can be proud of.”
Was he successful? Is Delice Bistro a restaurant that the Jewish community can indeed be proud of? After our meal, I have to answer that question with an enthusiastic yes.
The Kobe beef steak made a good impression all around, meaty and tender, with crisp, traditional pommes frites. The branzino was served as a whole grilled fish, deboned in advance — a classic bistro dish. My chicken piccata was good, if a bit on the salty side; maybe the kitchen was overcompensating for the lack of butter in the sauce. That minor detail aside, the chicken was full of flavor. The side vegetables were also nicely grilled, and the mashed potatoes fluffy and creamy; I didn’t miss the butter at all.
I noticed that not everything we ordered was designated organic; the waiter confirmed that the menu is not fully organic, though they try to use natural ingredients whenever possible.
For dessert, the chef brought out three of the restaurant’s most popular desserts: tiramisu, an “ice cream” sundae and a freshly baked apple tart. The tiramisu was surprisingly good, despite the lack of dairy ingredients. My fiancé’s daughter was enthralled with the sundae, especially because it came in an enormous glass dish rimmed with chocolate. I didn’t bother to remind her that it wasn’t real ice cream, and she didn’t seem to notice a difference at all. But the big winner of the evening was the apple tart à la mode. It was heavenly —
flaky and fresh-from-the-oven. The flavor lingered with me for days; I still get a smile on my face thinking about it.
Overall, the meal was very impressive. My family doesn’t keep strictly kosher; we buy kosher organic meats for our home cooking, but, when eating out, our standards are more lax.
That said, we wouldn’t hesitate to return and enjoy Delice again. The kosher, partially organic menu is an added bonus, one that allowed us to enjoy the meal even more.
During Passover, patrons will be able to enjoy a seder menu prepared under strict kehilla supervision. For the first- and second-night seders, a Sephardic cantor will be on hand to say the blessings, and haggadahs will be available. The restaurant will also offer a complete seder-to-go menu for those who wish to eat at home.
So, did Delice Bistro live up to the lofty challenge of making gourmet kosher French food? Let’s be honest — Delice is not L’Orangerie, and it never could be. To prepare French food without butter and cream is a major challenge. However, Delice Bistro navigates the challenge admirably, and, to its credit, has created a tasty menu full of appetizing choices. I
wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Delice to anybody, including, if she were still with us, Julia herself.
Tori Avey writes the Jewish cooking blog “The Shiksa in the Kitchen” and is currently working on her debut cookbook.