Alain Cohen is the Tunisian/French/Jewish-American who runs this restaurant.
I am a non-practicing Jewish guy who exercises my Zen Juddhist beliefs, but like all Jews I still recognize the high holidays and such. I actually don't believe in such rituals as "keeping kosher," which may have made sense in the old days when cleanliness in food was fleeting, but today it is the orthodox religious folk who keep the practice alive. So what was I doing in a pre-Rosh Hashanah dinner at GOT KOSHER? CAFÉ & BAKERY (8914 W. Pico Blvd, West Hollywood, one block west of Robertson, (310)858-1920)? Well, actually I was curious about the Tunisian food I had been hearing about in the storefront restaurant, which has been open since spring of last year. I once visited the country's capital city, Tunis, in the early '70s, and found it a fascinating combination of Mediterranean and North African cuisine, similar to the Moroccan and Algerian food of its neighbors. I'll detail my dinner in a moment, but what makes this meal memorable and worth writing about is that... it was delicious and different!
B'stilla is a chcken and almond phyllo pastry dish.
Presided over by a charming, jovial French-Tunisian-Jewish character named Alain Cohen, the 30-seat eatery (with 16 more outside in good weather) was crowded with young and older people enjoying the exotic dishes coming out of the small kitchen. Loaves of golden challah bread were on every table; many were the award-winning pretzel challah for which they are famous. For Rosh Hashanah, which began this past Wednesday, challah in all its configurations is essential to the dinner table, and Alain showed us the spiral bread made with such ingredients as honey, fresh apples, and raisins. Alain sells a lot of challah all year 'round, since Jews 'break bread' after lighting the ceremonial candles for the Sabbath. "
"For Rosh Hashanah and the breakfast after Yom Kippur we sell thousands of loaves of challah," he told me. He went on to explain that his mother's family comes from the island of Djerba, which is off the coast of Tunisia. "The Sephardic Jews of that island trace their heritage back some 2,500 years, to when the Jews fled the Assyrian armies, who invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the FirstTemple," he explained. "My mother's family prospered on the island in peace with their neighbors, until the French were forced out of Tunisia after the Algerian war and Tunisian independence, My family arrived in Paris when I was five, and I grew up there working in my father's Tunisian/French kosher restaurant, Les Ailes (The Wings)." He later told me that his family had to flee Tunisia with almost nothing, and his father opened his first Tunisian restaurant in the old North African/Jewish quarter of Belleville. The restaurant became the center of Jewish Tunisian life in Paris. "That's where I learned to cook the Tunisian dishes we are serving here." He noted to the gathering of food writers that Sephardic Jews worked with the Mediterranean/North African/Spanish ingredients of their homelands, while the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe had a different, less rich palate from which to choose."
Kebobs of beef and lamb atop a bed of couscous.
Salmon on a bed of grilled vegetables.
A staple of every meal is a bowl of couscous, and I commented that Sunday's New York Times had a full-page article about the preparation of that grain. I asked Alain about the peculiar name of his restaurant, Got Kosher? Café and Bakery, and he smiled and said, "I know all the arguments about having the designation 'kosher' in the title, that's its limiting the potential dining audience, but it is a statement on where I am in my life with my return to my roots, and frankly it is too late to change." So be it... I am busy gorging myself on some of the most amazing delicious dishes in memory.Tunisian, yes, but also some Moroccan and even Parisian dishes are included. Kosher or not, this food is extraordinary and exquisite. I must note that Alain takes pride in the revamping of the recipes to feature healthy, organic, ingredients... such as grass-fed beef which is antibiotic-and-hormone free. Did I mention that he supplies ALL of the individual kosher meals for such elite chefs as Wolfgang Puck at special events, plus Sony Studios and the local posh hotels, while selling take-out meals every week for a large segment of the Jewish population of the city.
Grillade Royale of many cuts of meat.
Chachiouka... a delicious dish.
Pasta with the Tunisian 'caviar'of bottarga... mullet roe.
There are hundreds of little shops in Tunisia serving just one dish which is their hamburger and pizza. It is called brik, although here at Got Kosher?, it is called breik, and they offer two versions as starters. I recommend the Breika L'Oeuf au Thon ($6). It is a crackly crunchy crust filled with a soft-cooked egg, parsley, capers and canned tuna. The other version is Breik aux Pommes de Terre ($4.50), a veggie version filled with potatoes, parsley and hard-boiled egg.
As food writer Linda Burum once wrote about their brik, "When you bite into Tunisian-style brik a l'oeuf at Got Kosher Café, you experience one of the world's great feats of culinary alchemy. Stab into the crunchy, paper-thin crepe (called Brick or Warga) and the runny egg yolk oozes out, enriching both the potato-chip crispy pastry and its filling of olive-oil-bathed tuna flecked with tart capers and parsley." My dear friend's words say it all...the food here is somewhat magical and exciting."
Tarte tatin is a dairy-free dessert
There are a handful of other appetizers, which will intrigue your taste buds, from avocado egg rolls ($5) and B'stilla ($8), the traditional chicken and almond phyllo pastry. I was not crazy about the Cigare a la Viande ($7), two cigar-shaped beef turnovers seasoned with cumin and harissa... but my companions devoured them eagerly. Harissa is the principle condiment of the region, and every family has their own version. They offer a merguez sausage sandwich ($8) dressed with harissa and served on their unique pretzel bread. I did love the fricassse ($4), a mini-Tunisian fry bread stuffed with tuna, egg and capers. Alain's larger format of the Tunisian Tuna Sandwich is an homage to the traditional over-sized Tunisian market version in which the bread just about serves as a salad bowl. The chef's monster Italian loaf is similarly stuffed with layers of tomato-pepper relish, mechouia (roasted tomato and pepper salad), tuna belly in olive oil, Israeli salad, hard-boiled egg, boiled potato, preserved lemon, olives and capers...all coated once more with their spicy harissa sauce. Again, a wonder to experience and eat.
Merguez sausage sandwich is spectacular.
Meat-lovers among us (yes, I mean you) will experience a chill when they see the Grillade Royale ($21.99) brought to the table. A huge mixed-grill platter of beef steak, lamb shoulder, merguez sausage, heart and sweetbreads. What? You have never eaten heart. Well, you are in for a treat..it is a beefy, flavorful cut which could become a favorite if you didn't know what it was. (I buy slices of heart and liver from my favorite butcher, Lindy & Grundy, and just broil them for a splendid dinner.) There are six various Couscous Feasts, all served with the grain, broth and vegetables. My favorite is the Couscous Royal ($25.99), a bountiful bowl of the grain topped with beef meatballs, chicken, beef, lamb kefta kabobs and merguez. To be shared, of course. But save room for the Tajines... you know, the steamy dish served in the unique clay pot- cylinder-like bowls with tapered cover. They offer six versions, including a Lemon/Raisin one ($17.99) but gain, my favorite is the B'kaila ($19.99), a spinach and bean stew with beef and housemade sausage, osbane, atop couscous. Next visit will find me ordering the Lamb Shank Tagine $28.99) served with artichokes and harissa sauce.
B'kaila, a spinach and bean stew with meat and vegetables.
I asked this mother of two why she was dining here, and she replied: "Because the food is so fresh."
Did I mention that Alain offers multiple sandwiches of home-made brisket (both Kansas and Memphis style, sweet and spicy, on a stirato roll) and house-cured pastrami on rye baked in-house? And An all-beef hamburger ($11.99, served with choice of house-cut fresh fries or salad. (no soup with sandwiches)(The beef soup is thick and delicious.) Linda wrote about the artichoke beignets, three huge artichoke bottoms, breaded and fried, then simmered in lemon-garlic turmeric broth... rich, chewy and satisfying, they are served on a bed of fluffy couscous.
(Almost everything is served on a bed of couscous, which is fine by me.) Schwar-guez ($9.99) is their unique take on schwarma: ground beef seasoned with their merguez sausage, spices, and then grilled on a schwarma pit, served with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, onions and creamy lemon-garlic sauce..on pita. Utterly fantastic.
Alain serving a customer.
But it is the non-dairy dessert confections which have really astonished me... no cream or dairy, some made with coconut milk.. but there is a tarte tatin which is richly-caramelized and utterly scrumptious. Think of chocolate lava cake, pear-almond and lemon tarts, macaron, baklava... you will want to take several home.
So I am strongly recommending that you forget the word 'kosher' when inviting friends or family here for dinner and just mention that it is a fabulous, exotic Tunisian/Mediterranean menu..."Taste of Tunis"... and act surprised when they tell you, "It doesn't taste Jewish." They are closed from Friday night to all day Saturday. Sun, to Thurs. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 310-858-1920 or check the website at www.gotkosher.com.