Jerusalem restaurant’s kitchen prepares at-risk youths for success


The Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem is 150 years old — young by Jerusalem standards, but nonetheless bearing the eminence of its history.

Today, though, the onetime home of Anna Ticho, a well-regarded artist who made the rocky Judean Hills her subject, is part of a planned countrywide economic revitalization effort.

The restaurant Anna, which opened its doors earlier this month on the second floor of the historic building, is the latest “social business” operated by the Dualis Social Investment Fund. The Israeli nonprofit organization invests in retail and service businesses, and then outfits them to employ and train at-risk segments of the Israeli population.

Passover is perfect for hitting the road to culinary adventure


You’ve just touched down in Chicago. Or New Orleans. Or New York. You’re in town to visit your aunt, the one with lipstick-stained teeth and the husband no one wants to talk politics with. The saving grace: You have a week to indulge in deep-dish pizza. Or beignets. Or bagels. 

But wait. You can’t. It’s Passover. 

Here’s a crazy notion. What if the parameters of Pesach — which begins the evening of April 22 and leads many to visit out-of-town relatives — didn’t have to be a deterrent to taking full advantage of an exciting restaurant scene? After all, some live to eat. Some eat to live. Everyone travels to eat. 

On those nights when there is no seder, there are still plenty of opportunities to eat out and actually enjoy yourself without having to sit facing blank walls to avoid seeing all the dishes you can’t consume.

Amy Kritzer, the Austin-based creator of the food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and author of the upcoming kosher dessert book “Sweet Noshings,” views Passover as a time to relish creativity in the kitchen. Her blog features recipes for matzah nachos (machos!) and Thai matzah pizza, and she contends that many restaurants use Passover to try new things. For her, that’s something to look forward to. 

“Most restaurants are used to accommodating gluten-free people, allergies and such. Passover is just one more challenge they take on, and many of them are ready for it,” Kritzer said. “One year in New York, I remember eating matzah breadsticks at an Italian place. They were incredible.”

In cities with a varied, dynamic restaurant scene — think New York — many top eateries even prepare special menus for the holiday. Think of it as an opportunity to see the chef operating at peak creative levels. Each spring, for example, chef Hillary Sterling at NoHo’s Vic’s whips up a Passover-themed menu inspired by the Seder Hamishi, a secret meal that Jews prepared inside the homes of Christian neighbors during the Spanish Inquisition. It features carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke), bottarga (cured fish roe) and guinea hen. 

Of course, not everyone travels to New York for Passover. But no matter where you find yourself, you can always try a good deli — even if traditional sandwiches are out of the question.

 “It’s actually one of the busiest times of the year,” said Harold Ginsburg, owner of Art’s Deli in Studio City.  

Suzee Markowitz, owner of Factor’s Famous Deli in West L.A., echoed Ginsburg, noting that she sees many unfamiliar faces come Passover time. “We have a lot of families visiting us from out of town around the holiday,” she said. 

Both restaurateurs noted that, in addition to enjoying seasonal items such as matzah brei and flourless desserts, people tend to simply order deli favorites such as pastrami or corned beef — minus rye bread. 

Now, to purists, that may sound just plain wrong. But Lara Rabinovitch, a specialist in food culture and history who served as consulting producer on “City of Gold,” the award-winning documentary on Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, said there’s reason to keep an open mind. Rabinovitch currently is working on a book about pastrami, which includes delving into a history that doesn’t include its now-familiar companion, rye.   

“First of all, pastrami was originally not served on bread,” she said. “It’s from Romania and it was eaten on its own there originally. Bread is a sideshow to the main event, which is pastrami. In most delis, bread is an oversight, anyway. You don’t lose much by losing bread.” 

So, think of Passover as the one time of year when you’re forced to eat pastrami the way it was intended.

Orly Olivier’s Sephardic roots inform the way she engages with the holiday, emphasizing family and food above all. The Los Angeles-based artist’s exhibition “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes from the Maghreb,” a celebration of her Tunisian family heritage, just completed its run at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Olivier recommends outings during Passover week that in some ways mirror the spirit of the holiday. For her, that means family-style dining and sampling small plates. 

“If I were doing Passover dinner in a restaurant, I’d do Elf in Echo Park. It’s 100 percent vegetarian. They have an amazing approach to food,” she said. “It’s small plates, so you share everything. You’ll never wish you had a piece of bread — or meat, for that matter.” 

Olivier also advises calling a restaurant before you go to let the staff know you’re coming in with dietary restrictions. If you let them know you’re coming in for Passover, she said, they’ll probably “pimp it out for you.” 

When Tannaz Sassooni is not busy with work as a technical director at Dreamworks Animation, she runs the Persian food blog All Kinds of Yum. Sassooni believes Persian restaurants are another viable option during the holiday, as bread isn’t a major part of the meal. Sassooni said the menu and atmosphere should be major selling points. 

 “A lot of it is yogurt-based. You can do small plates and everyone is reaching over each other and talking over each other,” she said. “It’s amazing.” 

Bibi’s Bakery is his newest production


Since moving to Southern California in 1999 to become a writer and performer, Dan Messinger has acquired some L.A.-specific wisdom. “Being a producer, I would argue, prepares you for almost anything,” he said. 

The affable, bearded and bespectacled owner of the kosher Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson juggled various demands and distractions even as he talked about his circuitous professional path. The Philadelphia native and graduate of the University of Michigan started out in L.A. doing stand-up comedy and writing; then working as a youth director at Sinai Temple, followed by a stint in reality and unscripted TV, and working at a marketing production company. Since 2011, he has owned and run Bibi’s, a neighborhood bakery and cafe. 

In all his various turns, the interruptions never stop. And the cafe is no exception. During an interview recently, a refrigerator needed repair, catering orders came in, and repeat customers waved hello. 

To Messinger, 39, who wears a tongue-in-cheek apron embroidered with “Dan The Man,” owning a food business is like being on “a train that’s constantly moving.” 

But back to the analogy of media production, which, after many years, led Messinger to decide he wanted a change and a needed a “serious pivot.” Similar in certain ways to food preparation and sales, his previous jobs involved taking raw materials, and, while managing many variables and logistics, quickly creating from them a finished, deliverable product. 

“I was always drawn to food and cooking,” he said. So when he found himself burned out by the world of entertainment, he chose yet another high-pressure field to get into, albeit one with more autonomy and creativity: small business ownership in the food service field. 

He combed business exchange websites, and found that Bibi’s, a spot that had been in business on Pico’s Kosher Corridor since 2002, was for sale. As he had done with his previous positions, Messinger figured he’d learn on the job, this time while making incremental menu changes and cosmetic improvements.

Messinger took over Bibi’s right around Chanukah. “I barely remember that first week,” he said. His wife, however, tells the story of how he fell asleep at their table in the middle of Shabbat dinner. 

Some of Bibi’s staff under the previous owner stayed on, and Messinger “adjusted recipes where I felt they needed adjustment,” improving ingredient quality, as well as making interior upgrades. An important remaining feature was Bibi’s tabun, the stone-domed oven that’s ideal for baking Jerusalem bagels, sesame pita and bourekas with various fillings that Bibi’s has always been known for. (Messinger jokes that access to baked goods has turned his young sons into “carb-aholics.”) 

Other popular items include pareve donuts, stone oven-baked pizzas, an Israeli breakfast special combo that includes an omelet, Israeli salad and a bread item, and the sabich sandwich with hummus, fried eggplant, olives, amba mango sauce, hard-boiled egg, tomato and cucumber on pita. 

Bibi’s is kehilla kosher, and Chalav Yisrael and Pat Yisrael certified. 

The décor includes reproductions of vintage Israeli tourism posters and food advertisements, and Messinger streams Israeli radio to add to the vibe. The blended Israeli iced coffee drinks offer a particular taste of home to some customers. 

Being located on Pico near Robertson, next door to Jeff’s Gourmet, means interacting with “people from all stripes of Judaism,” from “bagel-and-lox Jews” to Chasidim originally from Borough Park. 

“This is a place where anyone can get something to eat,” he said.

On any given day, he hears spoken Farsi, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Russian, English and Spanish. He uses his own Hebrew speaking skills daily — he spent a semester in high school in Israel, as well as his junior year of college at Hebrew University.

Customers also can enjoy late-night sambusak, cookies and other items. When Messinger opens after Shabbat, Bibi’s serves until 3 a.m. On weeknights, the doors don’t close until midnight, and 11 p.m. Sundays. 

Bibi’s Bakery and Cafe, 8928 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 246-1788.

RECIPE: BIBI’S HOMESTYLE SAMBUSAK

Ingredients

  • 1 pound prepared pizza dough (available at Bibi’s or your local supermarket)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 8 ounces marinara sauce
  • 8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
  • Sliced green olives to taste
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs
  • Sesame seeds

 

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a pizza cutter, cut out circles 7 inches in diameter. Each circle will make one sambusak.
  3. With a pastry brush, brush the outer edge of the dough circle with the beaten egg.
  4. For each sambusak, spoon one-fourth of the marinara sauce onto half of the circle. 
  5. Add a mixture of the mozzarella and feta cheeses (about 3 ounces of combined cheese per sambusak).
  6. Add olives and a sliced hard-boiled egg on top of the cheese.
  7. Fold one side of the dough over the other; pinch or press edges to seal. 
  8. Brush the top with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  9. Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden.

 

Makes 4 sambusak.

Bernstein and Starr’s restaurants taking over Fairfax District


Both Bludso’s Bar-&-Que on La Brea Avenue and The Golden State on Fairfax Avenue are a couple of the rare restaurants where men feel comfortable eating alone. It’s not that these solo male diners comprise the majority of the clientele, but they’re always there — a phenomenon seen more at fast-food joints or other types of establishments best not described in detail here. And their presence reflects how co-owners Jason Bernstein and James Starr deftly interpret the needs and wants of their customers and the neighborhoods where they’ve set up shop. 

Bernstein and Starr are equally at ease talking about deli food, local farmers markets, obscure craft beer and taco trucks. And, being secular Jews who grew up in Los Angeles, they are also uniquely positioned to straddle the tightly juxtaposed worlds that now occupy the Fairfax District, with its still-overt yet waning Jewish identity, and a shifting new culture taking hold along the avenue. 

Cofax coffee shop, the third and newest of the pair’s enterprises, boasts arguably the most contextually relevant portmanteau food-business name in existence, with its references both to its Fairfax setting and its product, while simultaneously paying homage to an American-Jewish and local sports icon. (Bernstein and Starr are baseball fanatics, too.)

How these two came to own their first no-frills, high-quality restaurant in a neighborhood some might refer to as the ’Chud (or what restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has dubbed the “Dude District”), is a somewhat classic California case of reinvention. Both are Los Angeles natives who have been friends since their days at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and it took just a quick conversation for Bernstein, 35, and Starr, 34, to derail their respective professional tracks in marketing and advertising in favor of creating a restaurant that, in retrospect, was ideal for the post-2008 recession climate.

“We had a lot of friends who lived in that neighborhood who said there’s a dearth of places that offer good value,” Starr said of Fairfax Avenue, pointing to the closure in early 2007 of Eat A Pita as fueling this particular problem, and also helping to create the opportunity. At The Golden State, they cleaned up the interior of what had been the café/experimental art space Nova Express. Their menu also offers a selection of sandwiches, fries, organic hot dogs, several salads, infamously decadent beer floats, and a case full of Scoops ice cream from the cult favorite shop on Heliotrope Drive in East Hollywood. Their Fiscalini cheddar-topped Harris Ranch beef patty served with a pile of arugula on a brioche bun received instant accolades.

Neither trained chefs nor restaurateurs, they relied on Bernstein’s craft beer obsession for some degree of expertise and street cred, along with their joint understanding of their specific location on Fairfax. They also hired consulting chef Samir Mohajer to get the kitchen up and running, and built the room to be the kind of place where they themselves would want to spend time. A flat-screen TV would be tuned into ESPN, the soundtrack hip-hop-centric. They’ve figured out other nitty-gritty details along the way since opening in spring 2009. 

“We try to approach our projects with a sense of authenticity,” Bernstein, the more talkative and overtly cerebral of the two, explained. They think of every project as defining “a lack of X,” Bernstein noted, and don’t claim to be reinventing classic food genres. So far, this method has worked, and it’s also in alignment with the current preference for artisanal food trends that prioritize depth over breadth. “If we show a lot of care and attention to the product and the execution, then, hopefully, people are responsive to that,” Bernstein said.  

So, last year, instead of expanding The Golden State, which they had explored doing, they redirected their efforts to address another untapped local niche: They recruited Texas-raised, Compton-based pit-master Kevin Bludso to bring his lauded barbecue north to La Brea and Melrose avenues, with former food blogger/writer and self-trained cook Noah Galuten overseeing the kitchen and formidable smokers. Spartan bench seating fills the former deluxe Tar Pit interior, and the many wall-mounted TVs make Bludso’s ideal for barbecue and sports lovers. Instead of, say, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys, the speakers play a steady stream of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and other classic bluesmen.  

And now, after four years of batting around yet another concept, the team has launched Cofax a few doors up from The Golden State, between Oakwood and Rosewood avenues. “On that block, it made a lot of sense,” Starr said. Golden State employees had heard from customers who balked at the prospect of walking just a few blocks north to Commissary or south to the Original Farmers Market that a nearby coffee shop could be viable. It’s a pretty simple operation: Cofax’s La Marzocco espresso machine pulls Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ beans from Portland, Ore., and they also sell other beverages and a few noshes to go with the coffee. 

Like other traditionally Jewish areas such as New York’s Lower East Side, Paris’ Le Marais district or London’s East End, Fairfax’s lack of polish resonates with a new population. Home to the perennially popular Canter’s Deli, the stretch around Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue is known these days far and wide to (mostly) dudes who shop at and adopt skateboarding and street-wear shops as their clubhouses. 

Replacing the Chasidic families that once dominated the strip, young men of all ethnicities now line the street for limited-edition skateboard, sneaker and T-shirt releases at stores such as Supreme, Crooks & Castles and The Hundreds. Eager shoppers park themselves overnight to get their hands on these coveted (and expensive) street-wear items. Still standing in the mix are the Schwartz and Diamond bakeries, for example, and the Western Kosher grocery store, which Bernstein said allows that part of Fairfax “to appeal to both the local and to the visitor.” Animal restaurant across the street also remains one of the city’s hottest dining destinations. 

Cofax occupies what was once a Jewish food business catering to a largely Orthodox clientele. Now, instead, “kids who are spending $60 on a T-shirt” are the core customers at Cofax, and to some extent, The Golden State. “So you have a very discerning group. I bet that these guys on the block just love the best,” Bernstein said.

So how do they relate to their base vis-à-vis their own L.A. roots? (Bernstein’s mother graduated from Fairfax High.)

“I think there is that resentment. Change is tough,” Starr said. But he sticks to a straightforward mission. “In our mind, we’re trying to make that neighborhood as good as possible and offer the people who live there great options.” Neither one, however, lives in the neighborhood; Bernstein lives in Koreatown, and Starr in Santa Monica.

They also believe there’s still room for everyone on the street, from the art galleries to the skate shops to the kosher food purveyors, and this issue hinges largely on individual consumer purchasing power.  

“Street-wear brands aren’t forcing Judaica shops out. Exercise your indignance by purchasing something instead. It’s not a conspiracy. Instead, it’s just dollars and cents,” Bernstein said. “Businesses don’t thrive on the fact that you’re thrilled they’re there. They thrive on participation. 

“I guess my message is: If you’re Jewish, and if you want Fairfax to retain that character, go buy Judaica on Fairfax Avenue.”

Then an aha! moment strikes. “If someone camps out for a menorah for five days, that’s what I want to see.”

“You start seeing tents and sleeping bags lined up,” Starr added, continuing the thread. “I’m surprised Supreme hasn’t dropped a
limited-edition menorah for Chanukah.”

L.A.’s gourmet kosher makeover


At the new Shilo’s steakhouse on Pico Boulevard, concentric circles of color surround the caviar: green onion on the outside, yellow egg yolk sprinkled on the inner rim, followed by chopped egg whites peppered with blinis and tortillas and topped ceremoniously by a mound of glistening fish eggs.

The Ikura caviar is red, which indicates that it’s kosher — culled from salmon, not the non-kosher black beluga that comes from sturgeon.

At The Prime Grill on Rodeo Drive, the short ribs are braised for 12 hours and then served with wild mushrooms and spicy mustard. The chopped Wagyu Steak Sliders look like little hamburgers but are eye-openingly delectable, made from hand chopped steak, while the Oh Toro sashimi is smooth and silvery and almost swims down the throat.

At Tierra Sur at the Baron Herzog Winery in Oxnard, venison is one of the most popular dishes, and the white bean soup is topped with “bacon” — a crisp, salty, flavorful meat that’s made from lamb so it will be kosher.

Welcome to Southern California’s new world of Gourmet Kosher.
As America has fallen in love with food over the last decade, the kosher world has not been too far behind. Kosher products and kosher gourmet ingredients abound, as do kosher cookbooks and cooking classes and a general interest in food, entertaining and all it entails. The kosher market has proved a profitable one, appealing to the religious, the newly kosher and others who may want nondairy, halal or simply food that is perceived to be cleaner.

New York, the capital of fine dining, boasts a number of established top-caliber kosher restaurants, among them Le Marais, Abigail’s, Tevere and The Prime Grill, which opened there in 2000 and has just opened in Beverly Hills, as well.

The arrival in Southern California of The Prime Grill — a trendier, classier place than its New York counterpart — and other restaurants, signifies that Los Angeles, a city that often lags foodwise behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago, might finally be catching up when it comes to kosher food.

In the second-largest U.S. Jewish city (behind New York) Los Angeles has a fair number — about 50 — kosher eateries, from bakeries to pizza stores to ethnic food and a number of fancier restaurants.

New restaurants are appearing that don’t ladle up the chicken soup and pastrami sandwiches of yesteryear, though delis with that fare still abound, more often known as “kosher style” and consumed by the non-kosher crowd in the mood for a good knish.

This gourmet kosher trend is aspiring to create a whole new world of fine dining, with chefs trained at top culinary schools (some of them do not observe kashrut themselves) who offer high-end cuisine and extensive wine lists in dining rooms designed by famous decorators.

Pricey and elegant, the hope is to bring high-quality dining to the kosher consumer and, at the same time, attract all the other food connoisseurs that vie for tables at Los Angeles’ top eateries.

But are Los Angeles’ kosher consumers ready for high-class dining? And is the mainstream “treif” world ready to patronize a kosher restaurant as a prime destination?

What does it take to be a kosher restaurant?

No. 1, of course, is adherence to the laws of kashrut, a complex system with innumerable subtleties and exceptions, but which at its most basic elements prohibits pork, shellfish and some other animals and fish and their byproducts. There are also restrictions regarding alcohol and produce and laws prohibiting mixing meat and dairy products. Any kosher restaurant must choose to be either fleishig or milchiks (the Yiddish words for meat or dairy), which means choosing between steakhouse or Italian, a deli or a pizzeria. Not both.

To be certified glatt or suitably kosher for the Orthodox (there are also some Conservative certifications), a restaurant cannot be open on Sabbath or Jewish festivals. And, further, to get a hashgachah — the outside certification provided for a fee by organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of California, Kehilla and Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan, to name a few of the top L.A. certifiers — the venue must have a mashgiach onsite — a supervisor versed in the laws who will ensure complicity.

Rabbi Yaacov Vann, director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, one of the top kosher certifiers in California, describes the need for a kosher restaurant to be a “secure system,” and he uses specific criteria to assess the risks of each establishment.

“How likely is there to be a problem?” he said.

Bakeries, like the famous Schwartz’s, for example, have a low-risk assessment, because there’s little differential between ingredients for kosher bakeries and non-kosher bakeries — flour, sugar, eggs — are all pareve. “There’s little risk to cheat,” he said.

Meat, by contrast, must come from a certified shohet, or butcher, and is more expensive than regular meat. (In September, a scandal rocked Monsey, N.Y., when a butcher was discovered selling non-kosher meat to the ultra-Orthodox community.)

All restaurants, of course, need more oversight than any bakery or pizzeria, and the bigger and busier the place, the more supervision it requires. Depending on the facility, the mashgiach may be the owner or someone who works in the store or an outsider — although the RCC is hoping to require all restaurants to have outside supervisors to minimize corruption.

All this can cost the establishment thousands of dollars a year. But the assurance of strict observance is the only way to bring in people who eat kosher.

There are no statistics on the number of Jews who keep kosher in Los Angeles, though an estimated 10 percent of the L.A. area’s roughly 600,000 are said to be Orthodox. But even those numbers don’t mean much to restauranteurs, because not all religious Jews eat out, some do but only infrequently, limited by such reasons as money, time, family values or weekends spent at home for Shabbat. Many Jews who care about kashrut will also eat at non-kosher restaurants but limit themselves to nonmeat meals, allowing themselves more flexibility on the weekends, when kosher restaurants are closed.

In other words, it’s impossible to gauge the size of the market for kosher dining, except to say that the clientele, until now, has been mostly Jews, friends of Jews or colleagues of Jews taken there for business meals. And everyone agrees, that despite many choices until now among kosher restaurants, there haven’t been enough good kosher restaurants here.

Buenos Aires Let Me Dance to Your Beat


 

In Buenos Aires you wouldn’t know about the Argentine economy’s disastrous crash — except, perhaps, by chatting with your taxi driver and discovering he was a former tycoon.

BA, as old hands call it, has retained its prosperous appearance and cosmopolitan cool, and it remains one of the world’s most fabulous cities. In fact, given the peso devaluation, the once-pricey Argentine capital should be visited soon, while its delectable cuisine and shopping, some of the finest in South America, are a relative bargain.

No wonder this glittering capital was so inviting to the upwardly mobile Evita in the early 20th century — this huge but green city boasts a level of European-style opulence and elegance equal to anything in Europe, and most closely recalls the finest residential neighborhoods of Paris.

Like Paris and London, Buenos Aires is made up of clearly defined neighborhoods, each with its own flavor. Visitors tend to concentrate in the smart enclave of Recoleta, which boasts not only the finest hotels but the city’s most intriguing attraction — the cemetery where Evita and all the rest of the town’s high society are buried. This fashion plate of a cemetery is a delightful and not remotely spooky place to stroll, with a wonderful craft market on the perimeter to boot.

Visitors are invariably trundled across town to the working-class neighborhood of La Boca, home of the signature postcard cityscape of brightly colored buildings amidst which young tango dancers strut their stuff on every street corner. Unlike laid-back Recoleta, the neighborhood is a bit of a tourist trap with its gaudy street art and restaurants where extra charges are levied for the entertainment that comes with lunch. However, it is worth a visit if only to see the immaculate young dancers in a more intimate setting than the big, fancy tango shows in halls packed with foreign tourists.

Another place to see tango dancers against a natural backdrop is Sundays at the Plaza Dorrego in the evocative San Telmo neighborhood, which with its cobbled streets and handsome 19th-century houses is definitely worth a stroll. Or the intrepid might consider visiting a milonga, one of the city’s many authentic dance halls where the natives gather nightly to tango; some offer lessons as well as an opportunity to gawp at the amateur experts.

In the city center, after a de rigeur cappuccino at the marvelous, if rather snooty, fin de siecle Cafe Tortoni, head for the Plaza de Mayo. The whole handsome plaza, bordered on one side by Evita’s Casa Rosada (Pink House) palace, is a wonderful testament to the public right to protest.

A visit to the Templo Paso shul in Once (pronounced Onsay), the old Jewish commercial area, can be arranged through specialist tour operator Last Frontiers. Once retains the odd Jewish clothing shop and other remnants of Jewish life while largely given over to newer waves of immigrants. Today’s shoppers are more likely to be found in and around the pedestrianized shopping area of Florida, where one of the finest stores is the Jewish-owned leather business of Silvia and Mario. Downstairs is a range of styles in sumptuous hides, upstairs the tailors who will custom-make any pattern in 24 hours.

Exquisite food is another bargain in BA while the peso remains devalued, and even kosher travelers can enjoy the world’s finest beef thanks to the city’s best hotel, the Jewish-owned Alvear Palace, which boasts a kosher kitchen. The Alvear is like the Savoy transplanted to South America, though it remains expensive, devaluation or no.

While many will adore its tradition, there is no doubting the value on offer at the nearby Four Seasons, whose huge suites and outdoor pool are not to be sniffed at. Next door is the city’s finest Italian restaurant, Piegari (in this city where 40 percent of residents are of Italian origin, pasta joints are numerous and excellent), while nearby is the city’s best steakhouse, the incredibly elegant La Cabana. This is not to be confused with the more informal but equally excellent Cabana Las Lilas in Puerto Madero, the lively reclaimed docklands area. Both restaurants serve fish and excellent vegetable dishes, and the rich, creamy spinach gratin alone justifies the trip to La Cabana.

One day in BA should be set aside for a trip into the watery suburbs of the Tigre Delta. Here 3,000 people live full time in delightful houses on a series of islands where every necessity from school teachers to ice cream is brought to their door by boat. It is feasible to try out the lifestyle by renting a cottage for the weekend, but it’s also a great idea to take the tiny suburban Tren de la Costa to the terminus for boat rides around the delta. Every station along the little branch line offers a different attraction — antique shopping on one platform, gourmet dining on the next — and it would hard to think of a more agreeable holiday outing than getting on and off the train for a nosh and a browse, finishing with a leisurely cruise through the backwaters. Don’t leave, though, without visiting the Puerto de Frutas craft market for pretty and unbelievably inexpensive sea grass baskets and other hand-made souvenirs.

Different tour groups offer a Jewish Buenos Aires Tour, which is a day tour of sites like the Immigrant Museum, Israel Embassy Plaza, Lavalle Plaza, Libertad St. Synagogue, AMIA Federation Building, and Paso St. Synagogue. For more information, visit www.AllAboutAR.com, The Argentina Travel Guide.

Anthea Gerrie writes for the London-based Jewish Chronicle.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Confusing


 

I am a senior citizen. I’m 82, look 65 and feel like 40. It is a very confusing time of life. People assume that you are over the hill. You know that you are still vital and have the ability to contribute to society.

At the age of 50, I classified myself as lower-middle age. As the years rushed by, I accepted middle, middle-age and then upper-middle age.

At 82, I can no longer fool myself with artificial classifications. I am old. I am a senior citizen. So what?

Senior citizenship is not necessarily bad. Nice people rise to give you their seats on buses and in public places. I always refuse the seat but will accept it for my more fragile wife.

Theaters offer me a discount on tickets. Financially, I don’t need a discount, but I gladly accept it. There are some small feelings of guilt as I observe younger, and perhaps poorer, couples paying full price.

Guilt also appears for me in restaurants as I timidly display my two-for-one coupon. The guilt is not deeply seated.

My family loves to chide me about my preference for restaurants that offer these coupons. I just can’t escape my memories of childhood poverty. Who ate at restaurants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto?

Joining other seniors at a restaurant can be a harrowing experience. There are always a few seniors who lag way behind the cute gal leading us to our seats. Some seniors reject seats that face a wall. Others in the same party demand a window seat. Of course, the restaurant temperature is too cold or too hot.

Some seniors have as much difficulty deciding what to eat as Eisenhower had deciding when to land at Normandy. We always have food left over to take home. We mark the cartons to be sure we take home our own leftovers.

You do not want to be present when the owner comes around at the end of the meal to declare our coupons invalid. We seniors are confident. We have seen too much of life to give up without a fight. Meek and mild we are not.

There is a sad aspect to dining with a senior who has lost a spouse. You want to pay their bill as a gesture of love. They insist on paying their fair share. You have to accept that pride demands that they pay for what they ate. Sometimes you adjust their share so they pay less than normal. They rarely know what you have done.

Dining brings up cruising. On a recent cruise, they asked what couple had been married the longest. The winning couple was to get a bottle of champagne.

The wife and I won with our 58 years. The champagne we gave away. But winning brought up many wistful memories.

I am very happily married. Yet I can’t explain where the years went. What happened to the skinny kid who was discharged from the Army on March 1 of 1946 and married two days later on March 3? Was it 58 years since we had that fabulous wedding attended by 10 people? How could it be that we have a daughter who is 55 years old?

You cannot spend time and energy wondering where the years went. They are finished.

Seniors must concentrate on now. Enjoy life now. Do what you can within your abilities. Life is precious and good. Tomorrow will come at its own speed.

 

Charitable Yums


Thinking about doing something for Israel but don’t have time or inclination to go there and volunteer in person? This Sunday you can do your bit for the beleaguered Jewish state by chowing down in local restaurants.

On May 2, 20 of Los Angeles’ kosher restaurants will participate in the National Council for Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) second annual Eat 4 Israel campaign. The restaurants have agreed to donate 10 percent of their gross receipts from that day to one or more of the following charities: One Family, which helps victims of terror; Magen David Adom; Yad Eliezer, which provides food to indigent Israelis; Save Our Soldiers, which outfits members of the Israel Defense Forces with bullet-proof vests; and Hatzolah Jerusalem, a charity that provides medical services at the scene of terror attacks.

“We thought that this was a good way to help Israel and really no one loses,” said Tova Weiner, an 11th-grader at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school, who was one of the 15 high school students to organized the campaign for NCSY. “The restaurants will make up for what they give us by increased sales, and people are going out to eat anyway. We think this is a great way to raise money without having to go door to door.”

Last year, the Eat 4 Israel campaign was nationwide, and netted $6,000 from 20 restaurants and the restaurants reported a 35 percent average increase in customers. This year organizers decided to concentrate only on the local market, and are proud that they have 20 restaurants participating in the Greater Los Angeles area. They are hoping for similar — or better results than last year.

“As a Jewish Orthodox youth group we believe that supporting Israel very important,” said Sharona Motkin, a senior at Shalhevet. “We believe Israel is going through a lot right now, and anything we can do to raise awareness we do.”

For more information and a list

of participating restaurants, visit

www.angelfire.com/un/eat4israel, call (310) 940-5683, or
e-mail eat4israel@hotmail.com .

Mojitos and Matzah Balls in Havana


Care for an authentic Cuban mojito at the L’chaim bar? How about Israeli salad, matzah ball soup and cheese blintzes?

They’re all now on the menu at the Hotel Raquel, Cuba’s first boutique hotel catering specifically to adventurous Jewish tourists.

Richly illustrated passages from the Bible cover the walls of the small but elegant property, located in what was once a thriving Jewish neighborhood of Old Havana.

The 25-room hotel originally was built as a bank in 1908, a time when thousands of impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria were immigrating to Cuba.

After the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, nearly all of the Jews fled to the United States and elsewhere. Today, no more than 1,300 Jews live in Cuba, most in Havana.

For many years, the structure housing the Raquel was used as a warehouse and fabric depot. Now, its eclectic architecture and romantic Art Nouveau interiors — all refurbished — have made the Raquel a jewel in the crown of Habaguanex S.A., the state entity charged with fixing up Old Havana’s hotels and restaurants.

The property is located six blocks from Congregacion Adat Israel, Cuba’s oldest synagogue, and boasts the largest stained-glass window on the island.

General manager Jose Manuel Quesada said that since the Raquel’s inauguration in June, it has become popular with Spanish tourists as well as Americans circumventing the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

He expects the occupancy rate to reach 80 to 85 percent this winter, thanks to an influx of visitors from France, Germany and Great Britain.

In addition to American Jews, the Raquel clearly hopes to attract tourists from Israel. Though Castro broke off relations with the Jewish State in 1973, tour operators in Tel Aviv estimate that at least 10,000 Israelis have visited Cuba.

Near the Raquel is a kosher butcher shop and a bakery. Some Jewish families still live in the vicinity, and according to Leal, at least seven hotel employees are Jewish.

Eusebio Leal Spengler, director of Habaguanex and Havana’s official historian, said the revival of Jewish culture at the Hotel Raquel is a long and involved process.

“We have built a place of harmony in a Havana neighborhood that respects the best traditions of the Jewish people, members of a community that live in Cuba together with citizens of other beliefs,” he said.

In high season, rooms at the Raquel start at $180 for a double, going up to $282 a night for one of the hotel’s two junior suites. These prices include a welcome cocktail, breakfast, access to a safe, free entrance to all museums and 10 percent off at all Habaguanex-managed restaurants.

The Jewish touch seems to be everywhere in the building, with rooms on the second floor named after biblical matriarchs like Sarah, Hannah, Leah, Ruth and Tziporah. First-floor rooms have names like David and Solomon.

It’s the only hotel in Cuba whose phone system plays the theme song from “Schindler’s List” when callers must be placed on hold.

Four ornate chandeliers patterned after Stars of David hang in the lobby, while contemporary paintings by Cuban Jewish artist Jose Farinis hang on the hotel’s walls.

The lobby bar, meanwhile, is named L’chaim. It’s right next to the Bezalel boutique and gift shop, which sells Judaica, and the Garden of Eden restaurant, where guests can choose a variety of kosher-style items ranging from potato latkes to red beet borscht and vegetable knishes.

For really hungry tourists, the Garden of Eden offers lamb shishlik, sweet-and-sour beef tongue, Hungarian goulash and gefilte fish.

Quesada says the hotel never cooks vegetables together with meat, but Pavel Tenenbaum, a Cuban Jew who used to work at the hotel, says the Raquel does not follow the rules of kashrut.

For more information on Hotel Raquel, visit

Borscht Again! Jerry’s Deli Reopens


About a year and a half ago, Lisa Thomas drove her father to Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City, one of their favorite restaurants, to have a birthday brunch for him. However, when they arrived at the deli, they saw fire engines everywhere. The San Fernando Valley eatery was ablaze, causing an estimated $2 million in damages.

For 16 months, Thomas and her husband, Bruce Thomas, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, felt an emptiness in their lives — or, rather, a void in their stomachs. Although they began eating at a nearby deli, nothing could replace Jerry’s sky-high corned beef sandwiches, hearty matzah ball soup and friendly service, she said.

So when Jerry’s rose from the ashes and reopened with standing-room-only crowds on Sept. 16, the Thomases were there. The couple arrived with the family’s newest addition, 7-month-old Grant.

Smiling at his young son, Bruce Thomas said he couldn’t wait to soon introduce him to the joys of Jewish cooking, Jerry’s-style. “He will definitely have matzah ball soup, when it’s time,” he said.

Jerry’s is back, and not a moment too soon for its legions of fans who made the Studio City location the strongest performer in the 12-store chain, which includes eight Jerry’s, one Solley’s Delicatessen and Bakery, two Wolfe Cohen’s Rascal Houses, and one Epicure Market in Florida. The newly renovated Jerry’s on Ventura Boulevard, with six plasma television screens and tile-and-marble floors replacing the shopworn carpets of yesteryear, has an updated look for the 21st century and 700 menu items for the ages, said Guy Starkman, president of Jerry’s Famous Deli Inc., based in Studio City.

Standing amid a throng of customers, he said it appeared the company’s $3.5 million investment to reopen the landmark Jerry’s had paid off. “I didn’t do any promotion, any advertising,” said a smiling Starkman, as he glanced around the jammed restaurant.

Opening night had a part Hollywood-premiere, part high school reunion feel. Isaac “Ike” Starkman, the Israeli-born chief executive and Guy Starkman’s father, flew in from Florida for the occasion. Looking resplendent in a sleek dark suit, he greeted customers as lost friends. Tucked away in booths were actors Robert Guillaume of “Benson” fame and British pop star Robbie Williams. Swarming around them were dozens of the restaurant’s 150 employees, many of whom had worked there before it burned down on May 18, 2002. Between frantically taking orders, pouring drinks and washing dishes, they welcomed one another with hugs and smiles.

“The energy is just so good,” said bartender David Bernstein, 43, a 19-year Jerry’s veteran. “So many people have worked so hard to make this happen, and it’s so nice to see it all come together.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky was on hand for the mezuzah-hanging ceremony. He said Jerry’s reopening would boost sales at surrounding businesses by attracting people to the neighborhood. Equally important, he said, Southern California needs all the pastrami and rye it can get.

“We don’t have a deli on every corner in L.A. like they do in New York,” he said. “Here, you have to jump in your car to get to one. So anytime a deli opens up, it’s a good day for the city.”

Ike Starkman, a former lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces who came to the United States in 1961, started supporting himself working as a messenger and other menial jobs. In 1977 he cofounded Jerry’s with the opening of a small Beverly Hills restaurant. A year later he helped launch the Studio City location. The store proved so popular that it doubled in size to 7,000 square feet, and just a few years later opened its doors 24 hours a day. With television and movie stars from nearby Disney, Warner Bros., Universal and CBS studios dropping by, Jerry’s became the late-night haunt of celebrities, including the cast of “Seinfeld” and Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal. Andy Kaufman, the late star of “Taxi,” once even worked there as a busboy.

In the early years, though, the deli chain struggled and hemorrhaged loses. To staunch the flow of red ink, Ike Starkman bought out his partner in 1984 and took over the business. Having founded a concessions company that operated bars, candy stands and souvenir shops on Broadway and at L.A. theaters, Starkman knew a thing or two about the food business. He tweaked the menu to broaden its appeal by adding salads and kids’ meals. Within a few years, Jerry’s was in the black and ready to grow.

To fuel that expansion, the company went public in 1995. Jerry’s’ initial public offering raised $9.2 million, money that was spent to open more restaurants, including one in Pasadena that later closed because of losses.

Despite its strong local reputation, Jerry’s failed to excite Wall Street, which gravitated toward high-flying Internet companies. That the chain posted relatively steady-but-slow sales and profit growth didn’t help. Jerry’s stock, which once traded over $10, slumped to below $3 in the late 1990s. In 2001, the Starkmans took the company private.

“Wall Street was looking for double-digit growth and rapid expansion, and we kind of just got left behind,”said Guy Starkman, Jerry’s president.

Even so, Jerry’s remains one of the nation’s handful of successful deli chains, said Larry Sarokin, a restaurant consultant with Sarokin & Sarokin in Beverly Hills.

Looking forward, Ike Starkman said he hopes to open another Jerry’s next year in Los Angeles or Miami. For now, the reopening of the Studio City restaurant excites him most.

“It symbolizes the return to the good old times and coming alive again,” Starkman said. “This gives us back our backbone.”

The Festival of Lite


Yes, the time of the fatty foods is upon us. But eight days of latkes and jelly doughnuts can be the least of problems for those who celebrate their holidays by eating out.

“The bad news is, most restaurant meals are high in calories and fat,” said nutritionist Anita Jones. “If you’re like most people in Southern California, we tend to eat out a lot.”

Even “heart healthy” or “light” menu options can be filled with hidden fat, sodium or other dangers for those on special diets or trying to eat healthy. While nutrition labels have been required by federal law on all packaged foods since 1994, the secrets of a meal prepared in a restaurant kitchen stay in the kitchen.

At a recent seminar for patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Jones laid out some ways to get healthy food at favorite restaurants. “It’s really about consumer demand,” she said. “You have to speak up and let them know you want healthier dishes.” She also recommended common-sense alternatives like sharing or taking home portions of large entrees, or requesting that salt, oil and other undesired items be left out of the prepared foods.

The recent trend toward keeping down carbohydrate intake has left many diners still unaware of potentially dangerous levels of fat in their restaurant meals, Jones said. Even pasta or chicken dishes labeled with a heart or other “healthy” symbol can contain upwards of 70 grams of fat — approximately equal to one stick of butter — when they are cooked and drizzled in oil. She cited olive oil in particular as a common, healthy ingredient that diners should still watch out for if they are concerned about fat intake. “What looks healthy may not be,” Jones said. “On many menus, salads can be the highest fat options.”

Since 1991, Jones and her colleagues have been analyzing the nutritional content of restaurant meals throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

The result is the “Healthy Dining in Los Angeles” restaurant guide (Healthy Dining Publications, $19.95), with weight and health-conscious options from more than 80 restaurant menus, from the Acapulco in Azusa to the Whole Foods Market in Woodland Hills, in addition to coupons and 40-plus recipes from restaurant chefs. Broken down according to fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein and carbohydrate content, the menus allow diners to plan ahead and eat healthy meals out. The menus also make clear which special requests are necessary to make the meals healthier, particularly items that patrons should ask that no added salt or less oil be used in preparation.

At the Cedars-Sinai seminar, representatives from a handful of local restaurants offered samples of recommended dishes. Real Food Daily restaurant offered some of its vegan fare, while Chaya Brasserie chef Shigefumi Tachibe showed off his Organic Tofu Caesar salad. Tachibe said that based on customer requests for healthy dining options, the lower-fat and lower-sodium dish has replaced a more traditional mix as the standard Caesar salad at his restaurants.

“Restaurants are the weakest part of the whole nutrition world,” Jones said, who added that the trend is changing as savvy diners are asking for healthier food. “Chefs are artists, they’re creators and they are really rising to this challenge.”

With the right information and an accommodating kitchen, even your favorite restaurant experience this Chanukah can be a festival of lite.

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