Modernizing bar food in Studio City — one killer quesadilla at a time
When Jeff Strauss opened a sandwich shop in the back of a Highland Park liquor store near the end of 2019, his menu inspired a loyal following, even though the eatery was open for business only four hours a day, six days a week.
Strauss, a former TV writer and “Friends” supervising producer, is a self-taught chef who gained a reputation among friends and family for his home-catered Super Bowl parties. The fare at his deli, which he christened Jeff’s Table, reflects the flavors of his Jewish upbringing, the Greater Los Angeles area and his employees.
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of Jeff’s Table soared. Customers became ardent fans of certain sandwiches, referring to them as if they were picking their favorite character in a TV show: among them, the yuzu kosho turkey, brined with citrus and served with green chili aioli and peppery arugula; a miso-crusted roast beef sandwich with horseradish crème fraîche; and — perhaps the most beloved — the Dirty Baby, a turkey salad melt with crispy shallots, chili crisp and shiso-pickled red onion.
Now, Strauss has set his sights on Studio City’s Oy Bar, bringing the Jeff’s Table sensibility to its bar food.
Oy Bar, formerly known as the Oyster House, opened in 1972, and it remains a neighborhood fixture, doing business next to an auto service shop in an inconspicuous San Fernando Valley shopping center on Moorpark Street. Walk through the matte black door and you’re likely to notice a salty musk that permeates the air. Thousands upon thousands of oysters have been shucked inside this space, and the ghosts of $10 boilermakers, spilled liquor, seafood and fryer oil have created their own lasting ecosystem.
The wood banister lining the rim of the bar is so comfortable and familiar that you could, as I imagine many people have, take a nap there uninterrupted. Deep ramen bowls and big oval dinner plates line the cabinets at the end of the bar, a signal, perhaps, that portions will be generous. This is a friendly place to lie low and have a drink, a place where Strauss and team believed there was an opportunity to modernize traditional bar food.
Oy Bar wasn’t an unfamiliar space for Strauss; it’s the first place he cooked and sold his food professionally. A friend who had attended a few of the Super Bowl parties “was doing a comedy night there, when it was Oyster House, and she floated my name to start doing pop-ups in the kitchen,” he said. Strauss did a two-month stint serving Reubens, salads, chicken wings, crispy chicken sandwiches and pickle platters to bar customers. It went so well that the owner of the bar approached him about another space — Flask, the liquor store in Highland Park where Jeff’s Table operates.
Flask lacks a full kitchen, so Strauss and his team were doing the sandwich prep next door at the Mr. Holmes Bakehouse (now the Kitchen Mouse Cafe). When the pandemic hit, however, the bake shop closed, and they returned to Studio City for pickling, smoking, brining and braising.
The recent opening of Oy Bar was a chance for Strauss to finally open his personal kitchen lab to the public.
Salt and fat are the marks of good bar food, and the dishes at Oy stick to your ribs and pad your gut. The yaki onigiri ($8), a grilled rice ball with smoked salmon, fresh dill, crème fraîche, red onion, miso butter and everything sauce, is delightfully warm and salty. Strauss’ signature pastrami is the star of a killer quesadilla ($17). His beef brisket, brined with Szechuan peppercorn and star anise (among other aromatics), is stuffed inside a flour tortilla with Comté cheese and crusted on a flattop with Gruyère and jalapeño.
The Oy Bar Burger ($16) is thick, not smashed, and comes served with melted Toma cheese, cilantro, cucumber and hoisin ketchup. Strauss’ pork schnitzel, soon to be added to the menu, is breaded with sweet challah crumbs and served with bitter garlic greens and pork jus. Even the ice cream cookie sandwich ($7) is seasoned with salt and ground chile pepper.
Strauss has developed his menus with chef de cuisine Kenya Bovey, formerly of A.O.C., Hearth & Hound, Lindy and Grundy and McCall’s Meats and Fish.
“I was looking for somebody with more restaurant experience than I had, who was willing to work with somebody who had a lot less than they had,” Strauss said, and he found that Bovey was the perfect complement to a self-taught chef.
Their sensibilities, Strauss added, have always been aligned. “The first day Kenya came in to work at the deli, I asked them if they wanted to mess around with burrata. I was thinking it would be cool to treat it like soft tofu, and that was the moment we clicked.” The result was a soft burrata “tofu” dish with soy and shichimi.
“The Dirty Baby was our first official collaboration,” he added. “We texted all day back and forth about a smoky turkey salad melt.”
Like Strauss, Bovey bursts with SoCal food energy, and the mixed-race, nonbinary, tatted-up line cook isn’t shy about using bright flavors and integrating iconic foods from the boundless Los Angeles culinary scene. They like to recall the beauty of eating a pork char siu burrito stuffed with avocado from a Mar Vista restaurant when they were growing up. “She was a Chinese woman who fell in love with a Mexican dude,” Bovey said fondly as they recalled the owners.
Bovey’s sensibilities echo Strauss’. They both emphasize imagination and a marriage of Southern California ingredients to enliven sensible, everyday food. And they seem destined to be texting about sandwiches for a long time.
Oy Bar, 12446 Moorpark St., Studio City, (818) 761-8686, open 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays through Saturdays. Follow on Instagram (@oybarla) for menu updates.
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