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RESTAURANTS : L.A.'s Kosher Restaurants: The Secret Is Out

<i> Ben K</i> a<i> llen is a Los Angeles writer who has been depending on kosher restaurants for the last eight years</i>

Los Angeles is in the midst of a kosher restaurant boom. And it’s about time. For years, this city’s reputation as a place that caters to devout Jews has far exceeded the reality; even such supposed Jewish havens as Junior’s, Canter’s and Chow’s Kosherama Chinese are not kosher. But now that religious Easterners are moving west and a new generation of local Jews is rediscovering orthodox traditions, kosher restaurants are hotter than grandma’s chicken soup. There’s still no kosher equivalent to Spago or L’Orangerie, and we’ve yet to see Thai, Japanese or Southwestern cooking done according to the Talmudic eating restrictions. Nevertheless, life for religious Jews is becoming increasingly delicious. And it’s not all corned beef and bagels. From the outside it’s just another pretty restaurant. Inside there’s a wooden bar and a pastel-hued dining room filled with art. Only the occasional yarmulke betrays the fact that this is a kosher restaurant. To kosher connoisseurs it’s the best-kept secret in town.

Skip the mushy antipasto, interesting only for the tangy, anise-flavored olives, and head straight for the sweet spinach and strawberry salad with honey-sesame dressing. Entrees are elegant: Pollo prima, a whole rock hen cooked crispy-duck-style in a peach glaze, is terrific, and there’s a wonderful mixed grill of chicken breast, turkey, beef and lamb, heaped with vegetables. The meats, served in a mild lemon sauce, are moist and tender, nothing like the dry kosher meat you’ve heard of.

And then there’s the dessert trolley, chock full of delicious cakes, pastries and mousses that prove you don’t need butter or cream to bake a tender cake.

Serravalle, 8837 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles , (213) 550-8372. Open for lunch Monday-Thursday, for dinner Sunday-Thursday. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $16 to $45. All major credit cards accepted.

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The central bus station in Jerusalem is a madhouse: People rushing to and fro, crowds everywhere, intriguing smells from every corner. The only way to make any progress is to push and yell your way through. A busy day at the Grill at Judy’s is much the same: sizzling platters are rushed through a crowded room and you are often forced to flag down a running waiter just to get a table.

When Czech Holocaust survivor Judy Weiss opened Judy’s La Petite on La Brea some years ago, it was just about the only place in town where kosher diners could find a sophisticated Continental meal in an upscale setting. But Judy’s moved on with the times, and this bustling hot-pink room is the result.

Now, in addition to the original dishes--matzo-ball soup (a powerfully concentrated chicken stock containing a single amazingly light and fluffy sphere of matzo meal), fine, crisp duck a l’orange and a bland goulash that owes more to brisket than to Hungary--there are grilled entrees and a few Chinese dishes. The Oriental dishes--cashew chicken, teriyaki beef and more--are the best among L.A.'s scant kosher selection. A nice selection of pastries, this time noticeably non-dairy, is available for dessert.

The Grill at Judy’s, 129 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 934-7667. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday. Wine is served. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $22 to $35. No credit cards accepted.

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It was Passover, and a line stretched down Fairfax Avenue into the little La Glatt restaurant. Owner Chaim Sitrin was in a bind: Customers were clamoring for entrees he’d run out of long ago. For Sitrin is one of the few restaurateurs who had taken the trouble to kosher his kitchen for Passover, a time when especially stringent dietary restrictions apply, and his was one of the few restaurants open. But he handled the situation with friendliness and aplomb.

He always does. Glatt kosher cooking, which this and some other local restaurants serve, is made according to an extra level of stringency that some require but others find unnecessary; it mainly concerns such unappetizing problems as blemishes on an animal’s lung. The food here is not fancy or particularly interesting, but if you want to try kosher home cooking, this is a good place to get it. Deli sandwiches, plates of deli meats and hearty dinners of roast chicken, roast beef or rib steak are served in a very relaxed atmosphere. Sitrin serves a nicely textured chopped liver, and gefilte fish that’s fresh but cloyingly sweet.

La Glatt Restaurant, 446 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 651-0242. Open for lunch Sunday-Friday, dinner Sunday-Thursday. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$24. Takeout. No credit cards accepted.

Home cooking is what you get at Elite Cuisine, too. Pat Fine began with a catering and takeout business on Pico; her new place is still geared to food to go. Just about any home chef would be proud to offer these dishes as his or her own. Tender meatballs are browned outside but still moist and pink inside; herbed grilled chicken is tender and with a delicious garlic-and-artichoke pasta would make a perfect Hollywood Bowl picnic. The cooks here go easy on the salt and spices--barbecued beef ribs are positively tame--but this is warm, filling, homey fare.

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Entrees are kept on steam tables, but if you choose to eat inside this small, modern room, your food is reheated. Sweets include rum-fudge cake, espresso-chocolate torte and a terrific pineapple-laced noodle kugel that’s good enough for dessert. On Fridays complete Sabbath dinners are available.

Elite Cuisine, 7119 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 930-1303. Open Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Parking. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $25. MasterCard and Visa. Also at 9303 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 859-7633.

Any fish with fins and scales is kosher. But if you order a permissible species of fish at, say, Bob’s Big Boy, you can never be sure it wasn’t cooked up with the tasty but illicit all-you-can-eat fried-shrimp special. Thus the necessity of places like the tiny Fish Grill, which, with just a counter, a few tables and a sawdust-covered floor, serves up kosher-certified fresh fish as efficiently as a fast-food fishwich.

Daily catches can include trout, red snapper, salmon and (frozen) mahimahi, grilled over mesquite, deep-fried or blackened. All are good, though the grilled fish often comes with a strongly charred flavor. Served with a pile of French fries or baked potato and a container of rather soggy coleslaw, the fish makes a light, simple meal. At the moment, the choice of drinks is limited to tap water and soda in cans, so if you want iced tea, bring your own.

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The Fish Grill, 7226 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 937-7162. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $8-$16. No credit cards.

“Devotion is just in her blood,” said Philip Roth about Alex Portnoy’s mother. Remember that when you walk into the Milky Way and are confronted with all those Steven Spielberg movie posters. The proprietor is Steven’s mom, Lea Adler, and she’s decorated the place as a veritable Empire of the Son.

Customers get their share of that devotion, too; Adler and her staff provide service that’s both friendly and efficient. This is a dairy restaurant in the literal sense of the word: mealtimes include lots of cheese--cheesy blintzes, cheesy enchiladas, cheesy (and watery) lasagna, and even an entree of hot, thick chunks of deep-fried mozzarella.

There is also fish, as in pleasant, crunchy fish and chips, decently peppered blackened red snapper and something unique: curried tuna and cashew crepes, which, while not for all tastes, have been known to convert avowed tuna-haters. Servings are relatively small--the better to get you to finish everything on your plate--and prices are on the high side, especially for those who can’t help feeling that real money should be paid only for food with meat in it.

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The Milky Way, 9108 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 859-0004. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday-Thursday. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $34.

Adolescents all over America love pizza. Orthodox kids are no exception. They love to congregate in kosher pizza parlors, especially at Pizza Mayven, which has mastered exactly the right blend of too much cheese and just enough sauce on a firm, chewy, almost crunchy crust.

New Yorkers Robert and Debbie Ullman, who opened this place in ’83, betray the Eastern influence in their cheese-laden pies. Other dishes (not always available) include Middle Eastern salads, pastas (served with sauce and yet more melted cheese), Mexican dishes (still more cheese) and calzone (enough with the cheese, already!). But why bother, when pizza, the only dish as perfect as milk and honey, is made so well?

Pizza Mayven, 140 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 857-0353. Open for lunch Sunday-Friday, dinner Sunday-Thursday. Dinner for two, food only, $5-$15. No credit cards accepted.

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“Listen, Sadie,” goes an old joke, “how did you get your Chinese cooks to speak Yiddish so well?” “Shhh--they think we’re teaching them English!”

It’s a joke told often at Peking Tam, which offers low-salt, MSG-free fleishig Chinese fare cooked by Chinese chefs. The atmosphere is utilitarian, the food no better (and no worse) than that in your average Chinese takeout joint. Chicken dishes--sweet and sour, Kung Pao (with onions, peanuts and water chestnuts) and Ho Lee (with cashews and fried noodles)--as well as Sichuan fish (with scallions, peanuts and water chestnuts) are among the best offerings; less successful is Mongolian beef, cooked until it’s slightly dry in a hot, bitter red sauce with green onions.

Next door is the Kosher Nostra, which serves decent pizza, cheese-stuffed Mexican dishes, falafel (balls of fried, ground chick-pea paste) and terrific turnovers (called “yummies”) with different pizza-like fillings in a functional, if not quite comfortable, room furnished with wooden tables and booths and swarming with families.

Howard Weiss, a pioneer among local kosher restaurateurs, owns both places and is himself one of the main attractions. He can be counted on to offer a few good words or bad jokes as he rushes back and forth between his restaurants.

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Peking Tam, 363 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 658-8118; Kosher Nostra, 365 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 655-1994. Open for lunch Sunday-Friday, dinner Sunday-Thursday. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $6 to $25. No credit cards.

To Tevye the milkman, Friday night was the time to sit down with family and friends to the finest meal of the week. It’s a tradition that is still retained by a surprising number of Jewish families. Because most kosher restaurants are not open on Friday night, one place in the San Fernando Valley that’s not kosher is worth mentioning for its special Sabbath dinner. Masada’s meal comes complete with the wine, chopped liver, chicken soup, roast chicken . . . and the Sabbath blessings, as well.

On other nights this homey, comfortable Mediterranean restaurant serves lamb, beef or chicken shish kebab, a wonderful roasted lamb shank and a delicious Moroccan chicken made with prunes and dried apricots and served with basmati rice. Hamburgers and deli sandwiches are also available, and an extensive vegetarian menu includes an authentic Greek salad and the best falafel to be found in a non-fast-food restaurant.

Masada Restaurant, 16260 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 906-0774. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, dinner seven nights (Sabbath dinner 7:30 p.m. by reservation only). Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $10-$30. Sabbath dinner $15 per person. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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Some other good bets: Yafa Restaurant, 637 S. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, (213) 656-9232 for Persian, Moroccan and Israeli cuisine (great hummus) in a nicely refurbished I-HOP; Pico Kosher Deli, 8826 W. Pico Blvd., (213) 273-9381, for a pleasant setting, comfortable booths and great corned beef and pastrami on crunchy rye bread; Drexler’s, 12519 1/2 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 761-6405, for good, old-fashioned, extremely inexpensive deli food (sandwiches go for $3.50 a pop); Dan Michael’s, 7777 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 851-7557, for Israeli sandwiches and salads (and for hanging out with Hebrew-speakers); L’Orient, in the Beverly Grand Hotel, 7257 Beverly Blvd., (213) 939-1653, for Chinese/Continental dining, overpriced but very elegant; and Going Bananas, 13808 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 907-7716, for pasta, fish, fresh fruit drinks and other health food.


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