The aroma of kebabs grilling over smoldering charcoal will lead you to a shipudia, or skewer house, almost anywhere you wander in Israel. The allure of these simple restaurants, though, is more than just the meat. Typically, even the most unpretentious places lay out a generous spread of Israeli-style salads and dips that, no matter how casual the ambience, surrounds you with a wonderful sense of luxury.
Two shipudiot on Ventura Boulevard, Itzik Hagadol Grill in Encino and Hummus Bar & Grill in nearby Tarzana, are both noteworthy examples of the genre, each with its own personality.
When Itzik Hagadol's "coming soon" sign went up in February at the Encino Commons, anticipation ran high among those familiar with its renowned original branch in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv.
Almost everyone, it seems, orders Itzik's signature appetizer of 20 Israeli salads: a dazzling assortment of rainbow-hued salads heaped in traditional boat-shaped porcelain dishes. The servers refill any dish on request without an added charge.
In the mix are bright orange Moroccan-style carrots, mushrooms in creamy dressing, burgundy-colored beets, chopped eggs, herb-flecked falafel and several eggplant dips and salads.
With these come a frequently replenished supply of warm laffa, a pizza-size Iraqi-style flatbread. The bubbly disks, baked in a conical oven called a taboon, are turned out at amazing speed by a baker who came from the flagship restaurant to train the staff.
Many make a meal of these vegetarian dishes, priced at $18. Order an entree and the same array of 20 salads is only $9. You can get seven salads plus falafel for $11.
But Itzik Hagadol is, after all, a shipudia, and the meze banquet is intended as an accompaniment to a selection of skewers whose choices often surprise the uninitiated.
Foie gras kebabs? They're perfectly cooked, slightly rare and made of goose liver, not the usual domestic duck. Anyone with a hankering for turkey fries (also designated as turkey testicles on the menu) will be elated to find these delicacies grilled to a turn. Itzik serves all the conventional muscle-meat kebab choices too, along with skewered baby chicken thighs or livers and flat-grilled marinated chicken breast. There's an open kitchen, where everything is cooked over mesquite in trench-shaped yakitori-style grills.
The restaurant offers porterhouse, filet mignon, rib-eye and whole planked fish at prices that rival those at BLT Steak or Mastro's. A 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak is $38.
Farther west, Hummus Bar & Grill offers its own take on the shipudia meal in a slightly less flamboyant style and with lower prices.
When it opened in 2006, it seemed to have dipped into a trend taking hold at the time in Manhattan. The limited menu offered hummus and more hummus. It still serves six variations -- such as with grilled beef, or mushrooms.
But sprawling L.A. is not Manhattan, and so about a year ago, new owners broadened the menu, turning the stylish spot into Hummus Bar & Grill. This bright, animated place has the requisite patio seating. There's a long bar where you can sit and watch a baker pull rounds of laffa off a rotating grill to dip into spicy tomato purée and the dozen other salads and dips.
True, you're served fewer of these mezes than at Itzik's, but the prices are $10 without an entree and only an extra $6 with one. The selection includes, among other things, chopped liver sweet with caramelized onion, guacamole-like mashed avocado, egg salad, beet and carrot salads, tabbouleh and baba ghanouj.
All the expected kebabs from lamb and beef to foie gras and chicken hearts are here. As at Itzik's, the price escalates (but not as high) should you select filet mignon medallions or aged rib-eye, both $26.
A cone of shawarma rotates slowly in the open kitchen. It's made from turkey with a bit of lamb fat threaded throughout, which is typical in Israel, says an expat. Layer it into a swatch of warm laffa drizzled with tahini to alternate with varied bites of salads and you're in shipudia heaven.