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The Find: Simon's Café in Sherman Oaks
Simon's Café is all contradictions. It's in pretty much the weirdest possible place for an elegant little Moroccan cafe: in Sherman Oaks directly under the intersection of the 405 and the 101. Some customers, trying to find the rear parking lot, accidentally get on the freeway.
The cafe inside is the precise spiritual opposite of the Los Angeles freeway system: tiny, dim, gentle and utterly welcoming. There are few tables, and the decorations are spare, but chef-owner Simon Elmaleh is almost always in the front -- greeting new guests, taking orders, delivering tagines to tables.
Elmaleh is Jewish Moroccan. He learned to cook when he was 14, when he became the assistant to a French chef at a Club Med in Israel. He opened the first Moroccan restaurant in Kobe, Japan, which he ran for 17 years.
He's a small man, very polite, but he has a compelling presence. He's not exactly your server, and he's not exactly your commander -- but he is a mix of the two. He'll explain the intricacies of bestila construction to one table while on his way to deliver an appetizer platter to another, and then he'll show you how to drizzle spicy vegetable soup over the couscous.
Purity of flavors
Elmaleh is proud of his cooking. And if you try the hummus, you'll see why. His hummus is almost a different species from garden-variety hummus, the kind that has no discernible ties to the chickpea. Elmaleh's hummus, on the other hand, is pure, unabashed chickpea -- just barely pulped into sauce. Falafels are unexpectedly tender: They're like fried bits of chickpea pudding, moist and airy. His baba ghanouj is vivid -- roasty and pure, whipped up into a fluffy cloud of eggplant.
The texture of his house-made merguez sausage is fine and suave, but the flavor is wild -- fiery, zesty and tangy.
Bestila is one of the Moroccan classics -- thin sheets of crisp, phyllo-like dough filled with minced poultry, nuts and cinnamon and baked to a crisp. Most bestilas are homey and comforting, like a slightly exotic pie. But if a normal bestila is like a hug from your mother, Elmaleh's is like a friendly family squabble over dinner.
On the outside, there's a great sheet of crisp pastry, folded over like a crepe. Inside, there are two layers: The bottom layer is soft, moist, finely ground chicken and duck; the top layer, sliced hard-boiled egg. The minced poultry is elegantly fine. Then there's the egg -- boiled firm, cut into large pieces, the textural opposite of the poultry. And then, with every bite, there's ultra-crisp, shattering pastry. The bestila goes from soft to crisp, from gamy to sweet, from finely minced to chunky and chewy.
Elmaleh's proudest of his tagines, the legendary stews of Morocco. He strips his down to their bare essentials. His lamb tagine is lamb, fruit, cinnamon, served in a traditional peaked Moroccan clay pot. A beef and olive tagine has the tang of beef, the bite of olive and a bit of caraway.
Eggplant for dessert
If the distribution of talent were fair, his desserts would be an afterthought. But they're fantastic.
Some are classics, like a pear poached in Pinot Noir and piled with the remains of the jellied wine, and a simple, delightful crème brûlée. There are candied orange peels, nose-clearingly bitter.
Best of all is eggplant, candied in slightly sweetened ginger syrup. It's dense, and satisfyingly chewy, and tastes distinctly vegetal -- the candying has intensified the eggplant flavors instead of hiding them.
His name is Simon Elmaleh, pronounced see-MOAN, as if he were French. He pours ice water with a flourish; he cooks his harira -- bean soup -- for 12 hours, for perfect consistency. He knows how to make perfect tiramisu. And half the women in the place are sneaking looks at him between bites of tagine, because they're in love.