In the dining history of the last century, the American steakhouse was the place for special occasions — dark, plush, vaguely English, manly and old- fashioned, with limited menu choices and unpredictable quality. It was where families went to mark an occasion.
Bocca Steakhouse, on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, was conceived as a special place, but with a decidedly different take. Four years ago, the space was transformed from a popular hummus and falafel spot called Tempo into a spacious, elegant dining room where the observant Jewish community could enjoy the pleasures of a fusion-oriented steakhouse with the security of Glatt Kosher certification. Owner Harry Seltzer chose muted gold and earth tones for the walls, added a new skylight and created a clean, elegant style using chic simple china and linens. There are tables outdoors, private dining rooms and a neat, super-civilized bar near the entrance. Beautiful red and gold artworks throughout proclaim — some in English, some in Hebrew — harmony, blessing, love.
On a recent Tuesday night the room is, not surprisingly, quiet. A family arrives carrying bags of gifts for some lucky person’s birthday, and they gather happily at a large table near the back. At a more intimate table in the central room, a husband and wife lean in to talk, apparently on one of those delicious evenings out alone that married people savor. At a booth on the other side of the room, two well-dressed young couples share a lively conversation that continues long after the coffee and dessert. A few people at the bar chat amiably about music and keep one eye on a game playing on the flat screen above the array of bottles. The mashgiach, attentive to issues of kashrut, hurries by on his way to the kitchen.
The menu is large and reasonably varied, including several fish dishes and salads, along with the steaks. Although tandoori chicken also is offered as a main dish, the fusion influence is most evident among the appetizers, including a much-touted house avocado roll in a won-ton wrapper and intriguing-sounding brisket tacos as well as lamb Moroccan cigars. The wait staff is serious and attentive and interested in the food. A diner undecided about a glass of wine receives a suggestion and a tasting glass. Specials are described carefully. Recommendations are thoughtful.
Of course, this is first and foremost a steakhouse, and it does not disappoint. Kosher rib eye and tournedos come to the table tender and flavorful, along with a generous serving of fresh steamed and lightly sauced vegetables. Tasty cubed, herbed potatoes replace the standard baked or mashed, and the whole is attractively presented on square, stark white plates. Bocca’s chef, Moti Chemelinker, is Israeli, an expert on working out the requirements of kashrut and fine dining.
Chemelinker also oversees a parve dessert menu worth sampling, including a flaky, brightly flavored apple strudel topped with luscious, creamy vanilla gelato. There are also two chocolate choices, a tempting lemon delight and an irresistible-sounding gelato with espresso syrup.
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bocca’s young wait staff start folding up tablecloths at 10 p.m., but on Thursdays, live music begins at 9 p.m. and can go on until 2 a.m. The performers come from the traditions of the community — Israeli, Persian and Mediterranean — and customers dance on the cleared area in front of the small bandstand, and, as the evening gets going, between and around the tables.
Recently, Bocca expanded its hours to include lunch. Neighborhood business people can now find seats at quiet tables indoors or at the outdoor tables thoughtfully shielded from the sidewalk and street by a glass partition. A new buffet will offer all the specials Bocca is known for, and, for the Don Drapers among us, the full bar is open. (The selection of wines by the glass, as well as by the bottle, includes interesting new Israeli offerings.)
On Friday afternoons, Bocca offers takeout and closes early. As explained on its menu and Web site: “Shabbat is a time of peace and joy all over the world, and involves prayer, food and relaxation. It begins Friday night at sunset and ends when there are three stars visible in the sky Saturday evening.”
And so, on Saturday evening, once those three stars appear, the restaurant reopens for another special evening. Depending somewhat on the season and how late it is when the stars appear, Bocca fills up anew with diners, music and dancing as the patrons take a little of the sweetness, the specialness of the seventh day with them into the new week.