September 23, 2018

Mizlala Chef Puts a Twist on Family Legacy

Chef Danny Elmaleh

The lunch rush is quieting down during a weekday afternoon at Mizlala in Sherman Oaks. The restaurant’s casual, intimate space contrasts with the steady thrum of traffic outside on the dauntingly wide Sepulveda Boulevard and the hulking interchange of the 101 and 405 freeways. 

Saffron-colored accent walls lend pops of color to the unpretentious decor. Above the kitchen window, a mural is emblazoned with a mashup of Israeli and Southern California imagery, while a row of ceramic Moroccan tagines stand at attention below. 

Chef-owner Danny Elmaleh is in back, restocking and arranging jars of colorful spices on shelves. For the past two years, Elmaleh has continued his family’s business since taking over what used to be Simon’s Café, a local institution operated by his father.

The family’s longtime clientele and Mizlala’s new customers are in very capable hands. After training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Elmaleh honed his skills for more than two decades over a career that has taken him from Japan to Italy and landed him the job of executive chef with the hospitality giant SBE Entertainment Group and its Cleo Mediterráneo restaurant chain, with Los Angeles locations in Hollywood and Beverly Grove. 

Elmaleh — who has close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and a relaxed, warm demeanor — said that when his Israeli-Moroccan father and Japanese mother decided to retire and have him take over the space, “I didn’t want to put the word out there too much. I just wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant and start a new brand that was more Israeli than Mediterranean.”

The change required transitioning away from his father’s Moroccan specialties and broadening the offerings — although he’s kept some of Simon’s customer favorites. The menu is now expansive, ranging from substantial apricot lamb tagine and kebabs to green falafel and a green goddess salad.

The name Mizlala was his father’s idea to convey a down-home vibe, since the word means “cafeteria” in Hebrew, as well as “ ‘to pig out’ in slang,” Elmaleh said. 

Given the recent trend of Mediterranean and Israeli restaurants opening in Los Angeles, Elmaleh has been ahead of the curve for some time. 

To Elmaleh, the cuisine is a natural, given Southern California’s and Israel’s commonalities. “The climate is similar and the ingredients are similar,” he said. “Israel is always strong with agricultural [products], and the produce is always beautiful.”

And yet, this is a chef for whom few cuisines are off-limits.

“I just wanted to start a new brand that was more Israeli than Mediterranean.”

— Danny Elmaleh

Elmaleh was born in Israel and moved with his family to Japan, his mother’s native country, at the age of 9. His parents met while his Israeli-Moroccan father worked for Zim, the cargo shipping company, and spent extended periods in Tokyo. His father’s heritage remained strong, and he opened Japan’s first Moroccan restaurant when the family lived in Kobe, Japan. The oldest of three sons, Elmaleh attended English-language Catholic school, and returned to Jerusalem for his bar mitzvah at the Kotel. (His father, at one point, was the leader of the synagogue in Kobe, one of two in Japan at the time.) 

After graduating from culinary school, Elmaleh spent almost a year at the famed Ristorante Giannino dal 1899 in Milan, and then came back to Japan to work for a prominent Japanese chef who operated a celebrated French restaurant. 

The 1995 Kobe earthquake and its devastating economic impact prompted the Elmaleh family to consider relocating. They decided on Los Angeles, since Elmaleh’s father had friends in the area, and arrived here in 2001. 

Even though he personally didn’t have any contacts or friends in L.A.’s restaurant scene, Elmaleh recalls that he “was pretty motivated to do something.” He spotted Josiah Citrin, the chef behind the acclaimed restaurant Mélisse, on a TV show and found Citrin’s somewhat stereotypical chef’s bluster appealing. “I wanted to work for somebody who was one of the best,” he said. He was hired by Citrin at Mélisse and worked with him on running the erstwhile Lemon Moon Café daytime restaurant in West L.A., while also juggling various private chef and culinary teaching jobs. 

Elmaleh left Citrin’s operations in 2006 to open an inventive Asian restaurant, Celadon, on Third Street near Fairfax with a business partner. When he was there, he was approached by master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi, of Studio City’s iconic Sushi Katsu-Ya, who suggested he join him at the SBE chain of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs run by Sam Nazarian. 

At the worldwide hospitality company, Elmaleh helped Uechi expand and glitz up a new iteration of Katsuya restaurants in locations from Hollywood to Miami. “I wanted to always make sure that we always operated at the highest level, and I wanted to honor what he was doing and his vision,” Elmaleh said of working with Uechi. 

That project led to other opportunities in his capacity as a corporate executive chef at SBE. Elmaleh created Cleo, an upscale Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant at the Hollywood Redbury Hotel. The Hollywood location currently is closed for renovations but, in addition to the restaurant on Third Street in Beverly Grove, there are Cleo outlets in Las Vegas, New York, Kuwait and the Bahamas. Elmaleh remains a partner in the brand. 

Since investing more time at Mizlala, he’s also been traveling frequently to Israel. His menu features Moroccan specialties such as tagines and merguez sausage, Israeli salatim, as well as different types of hummus. Dishes like sea bass ceviche reveal his international perspective.

Elmaleh grew up mostly kosher, but Mizlala is not. “We don’t have any pork. We have shellfish,” he said, adding that in Israel, “the people eat very freely.”

At Mizlala, “I want people to be able to order a lot of different dishes and have a blast. Sometimes you see a lot of food on the table. People want to try different things.”

In that spirit of convivial dining and fresh experiences, Elmaleh has shared a hearty recipe to celebrate the new year. 

BEEF SHORT RIB TAGINE WITH POMEGRANATE GREMOLATA

For the braise:

4 pounds beef short ribs
Salt and pepper
Canola oil
2 cups sliced onion
1 cup sliced fennel
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 teaspoons paprika
4 teaspoons ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne
2 cups red wine
1 cup pomegranate molasses
5 cups milled tomato
2 quarts chicken stock
Pinch of ground allspice
8-12 bay leaves
4 tablespoons salt
4 cups cooked chickpeas (2 cans)

For the gremolata: 

1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt as needed

Season the short ribs with salt and pepper, and sear in hot oil until brown on all sides. Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a separate, large, oven-proof pot (such as enamel cast iron), caramelize the onions and fennel slowly with a little oil. Once caramelized, add garlic and spices, followed by all ingredients, except the chickpeas.

Add the short ribs, bring to a boil, cover and bake for 2 1/2 hours until fork-tender. (Transfer to a Pyrex dish if you don’t have an ovenproof pot.)

Once cooked and soft, add the cooked chickpeas. Mix all the ingredients for the gremolata in a bowl. Top the braised short ribs with the pomegranate gremolata and serve. Serves 5-6.


Mizlala, 4515 Sepulveda Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 783-6698.