Kashrut and Mindfulness: Savoring Fresh, Local Fare at La Seine

This is a story about a dream afternoon I spent at La Seine, where chef Alex Reznik is cooking seasonal, farm-to-table, California-Asian … kosher food. The restaurant’s owner, Laurent Masliah, named La Seine for the river at the heart of his hometown, but I can’t help but think it’s intentional that the name also sounds somewhat like La Cienega, the boulevard on which the restaurant is located. Its building is long and low, and its wide, clear-glass front looks out onto the busy street. Guests can sit at the sushi bar to the left, at the traditional bar, in the lounge or, on the other side of two exposed brick divider walls, in the more formal dining area. That room’s palette is earthy and clean, crisp white, elegant but not too formal. Masliah — who, with his eager, open face,  greets his guests dressed in khakis and a dark shirt, kippah in place — clearly wants everyone to be comfortable here.

Evenings, the dining room is full of people celebrating — multigenerational family groups, office mates, lovers enjoying tender hanger steaks, lamb and more lamb (bone chop, belly confit) or the day’s fish on black Forbidden Rice. The dining room’s acoustics are terrific; a couple at a table for two can converse even though the large family at the table along the wall all seems to be talking at once. For a person lunching alone, the small patio area out front, screened by a ficus hedge, is perfect on a fall day in Los Angeles. Taking time to eat and time to think about what we are eating is as much a luxury these days as the more discussed “luxury” of good, nutritional food. And the food Reznik is making at La Seine takes time and deserves time.

Lunch begins with a cocktail, suggested by Reznik himself.

“It’s afternoon,” he urges, his eyes bright.

He is out on the floor often, checking in with diners, looking a little like a clever scientist, with his shaved head and short-sleeved white coat. He is full of energy, and he needs to be, as his workdays begin at 11 a.m. and go on well past midnight. On Wednesdays, he and his crew venture out even earlier to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. La Seine is closed on Shabbat, of course, but Reznik seems to struggle a little with the idea of rest. He sleeps in, he takes walks, but he’s happy to be back in the kitchen when the sun goes down on Saturday night.

The cocktail is delicious, as promised — a mix of refreshing plum, quince, Campari, gin and Prosecco to sip as the world hurries by on La Cienega. Plates begin to arrive. The deep, sweet and earthy-tasting heirloom beets with arugula have tiny cumin-spiced French lentils at their center instead of the typical glob of goat cheese. There is no dairy at La Seine, and it isn’t missed. (La Seine’s mashgiach studied cooking in Israel and also acts as a sous-chef.) Reznik, who is a “Top Chef” alum, takes the restrictions as a challenge, along with the issue of cooking “seasonally” in Southern California, where it is hot well into October and the sweet corn, tomatoes and English peas still attract.

Chef Alex Reznik. Photo by Peden + Munk

My salad is followed by a crudo, paper-thin white slices of snapper in fine salsa, with sweet pink grapefruit, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and a beautiful half-dozen pieces of sushi, which Reznik calls a playful take on fish tacos. Tiny slivers of ripe avocado and cilantro are tucked in the rice, topped with a bite of tempura halibut and a dollop of spicy aioli. The crispness of the fish and the richness of the aioli are perfect together. Because I am alone, I can eat slowly, taking notes, taking breaths, tasting each flavor, finishing each dish.

Reznik prefers the idea of sushi as an appetizer, followed by a more substantial meal. (One night at the bar, I saw a man happily polish off a yellowtail, spicy big-eye tuna, avocado and tempura roll, braised short ribs, extra fries and a lamb dish. One can eat heartily at La Seine, and it also offers a full kosher wine list watched over by friendly sommelier Adnan Mourani.) When the chef comes out to check on me again, he suggests I try something more … manly … for my next course.

It turns out to be his excellent version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, bahn-mi, with heavenly thin, spicy potato chips. The bahn-mi roll is perfectly crusty on the outside, the beef short ribs that take the place of the traditional pork are rich and spicy, perfect with the lime, mint and spicy mayonnaise that softens the inside of the roll. The complexity of these tastes, adapted from the colonial French by Vietnamese cooks and brought to America and interpreted here by a Ukraine-born chef in a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, says just about everything I love about eating in Los Angeles. I finish my perfect, solitary meal with a lemon soufflé tart, the last refreshing sips of my cocktail and coffee.

The laws of kashrut can be understood as a kind of mindfulness practice: to take time to stop, notice the details — if you are lucky enough, as I was at the start of a new year, to be surrounded by such bounty — to pay attention to the gifts of the earth, the garden and the chef himself.

La Seine is now open for lunch as well as dinner, and, after Shabbat on Saturday nights, there is live entertainment in the lounge. 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 358-0922. laseinebg.com.

Dining out: On a roll

Matana sounds Japanese, but it is actually the Hebrew word for “gift.” Matana Sushi & Grill, the Agoura Hills deli-grill-sushi bar that is gradually absorbing and adapting tastes from around the world, began its life as the much more prosaically named Agoura Kosher Deli, a spare dining establishment in a pleasant mini-mall off Reyes Adobe Road.

Owner Isaac Eylesh thought of the deli as “traditional,” which meant it offered the food of Eastern Europe and of Israel — pastrami sandwiches, pargiot (grilled, spiced chicken skewers), roast beef and falafel plates. Chef Yocheved Tessler worked on homemade soups and fresh salads and catered local Chabad events. Beer, wine, cold sodas, sweet teas and juices were available from the cooler case on the wall. Desserts were a selection of pastries and parve soy ice creams. It was a popular neighborhood eatery.

But customers asked for more. They wanted a variety of simple, “fast” foods made with good, kosher ingredients. Eylesh responded by upgrading the deli into a deli and grill. He added juicy burgers, kosher hot dogs and schnitzel to the menu. The food was popular with locals and travelers passing by on the freeway, alerted to the deli by smart-phone apps like Kosher Kritic.

Agoura Hills is a relatively new city, with a short food history. The area was developed after the construction of the Ventura Freeway changed the Conejo Valley from hills that were home to Basque sheepherders and valleys occupied by a few ranchers into a reasonable place for the diverse peoples of Southern California to find more space and quiet. The San Fernando Valley was already long suburbanized. Those who had fled the city for its open spaces were almost urban themselves. Agoura was the next frontier.

Eylesh himself came from Encino, where his immediate previous restaurant experience was at Super Sal market. The first sushi rolls on Matana’s menu came from Super Sal and were only available for families to pick up before the restaurant closed on Friday afternoons for Shabbat. Customers loved them.

And so, last April, Eylesh closed the deli completely to build a real sushi bar adjacent to the dining room. He hired Dennis Kim, a sushi chef, to create the menu. Subsequently, Kim hired sushi chef Giho You to greet customers from behind the traditional counter as he diced, chopped, folded and rolled. A blue and white cloth banner displaying a fish was hung between the sushi bar and the kitchen, and Matana Sushi & Grill was born.

Matana’s fish comes exclusively from a kosher supplier. Besides the obvious requirements of fins and scales, kashrut’s concern with fish is mostly about contact with nonkosher food or implements. Any whole permitted fish can be used for sushi as long as it is cut in a kosher setting.

So far, Matana’s customers mostly stick to rolls made with the familiar salmon, spicy tuna, whitefish and albacore, but if given the chance, Chef You can create unusual and delicious concoctions from just about any fish. The rolls are fresh and the salty taste of the crisp nori and salmon contrast nicely with the spicy flavors of the tuna, the spicy mayo and the dark sweet sauce.

The restaurant is still a work in progress. The new sign over the entrance promises Chinese food as well as sushi, but the Chinese food and bento boxes are still in the planning stages. Eylesh and his staff monitor what customers enjoy and look for ways to expand the offerings and attract the adventurous.

They’ve taken on a lot already, and there are the typical new-venture kinks to work out: Waitresses don’t show up, some menu items are unexpectedly popular while others are left unordered. On a recent Monday morning, Eylesh was working the cash register, delivering orders to the tables, welcoming guests and ordering supplies on the phone. The sushi chef helped out, finding desserts in the kitchen, bringing a waiting child his brownie. Customers seemed pleasantly patient and eager to see the place succeed.

There is a spirit of community here. Two young girls at the sushi bar, just 14 and 10, are familiar with several sophisticated sushi restaurants in L.A. but were perfectly happy with the more American-style spicy mayo and sweet sauce on their sushi rolls.

They were excited to talk about Matana’s summertime experiment in which the restaurant opened after the end of Shabbat with a limited menu and music. One Saturday night, there was karaoke, another night there was a popular local band. Sushi chef You says there have been lines out the door for the sushi bar on Saturday nights.

Who knows what will develop next at Matana? Sushi doesn’t show up in traditional Jewish cookbooks. Traditions change. The abundance of possibility — and the possibility of abundance — is a gift, one that is celebrated right off the freeway, in this still beautiful, open, mostly quiet place.

Matana Sushi & Grill, Reyes Adobe Plaza, 30313 Canwood St., Agoura Hills. (818) 706-1255.

East meets West over Shabbat sushi

Akira Mizutani, a tall, willowy Japanese man who’s been living in Los Angeles for 12 years now, has long, flowing, jet black hair that hangs loose to his waist — and on this night, his mane is topped with a yarmulke.

Because tonight, like all Friday nights at the Glendale home he shares with his wife Liza Shtromberg, it is sushi-Shabbat dinner.

“Kosher sushi Shabbat” Shtromberg clarifies. “No eel or shellfish.”

Shtromberg, a successful Los Feliz-based jewelry designer and proprietor of the shop LS, was born in Moscow, moved to Israel with her family at age 9, then settled in Los Angeles at 16, where she finished high school at Hollywood High. She met Mizutani, now a landscaper, about a decade ago when he was a chef at the Japanese cafe Mako. Now they have a 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, who speaks three of the family’s four shared languages — English, Japanese and Hebrew (Russian is the one she’s not yet fluent in).

“We chose the name ‘Hannah’ because it’s both a Japanese, Hebrew and an American name,” Shtromberg says.

Then Hannah, a spirited child with bright, purposeful eyes and a raspy voice, chimes in, explaining how to pronounce her name in all three languages: “Hah-na in English, Chanah in Hebrew and Han-ah in Japanese,” she chirps.

Mizutani, the chef tonight — “all nights,” Shtromberg laughs — brings food to the table, which is cluttered with all the typical Shabbat accoutrements: sterling silver Kiddush cups, Israeli candlesticks that serve as a canvas for the Jerusalem cityscape, sweet kosher red wine. The women wear tallit draped over their heads and around their shoulders; Akira adjusts his yarmulke. There is no actual sushi being served tonight, as Mizutani didn’t make it to the fish market; but the meal is nonetheless authentically Japanese, one to satiate any sumo wrestler. There are bowls of steaming, sticky white rice; Chinese miso soup; Japanese Cabbage slaw with miso-sesame dressing, plates of Karagi and chicken Tonkatsu (rather than pork), as well as dried seaweed and Yaki Soba sauce.

“Akira was neutral in the religion department, so we never had a conflict over how to raise Hannah,” Shtromberg says.

“Not neutral,” Mizutani says. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah — I like it for the tradition, not the religion.”

“So Hanna’s being raised a Reform Jew. She’s Japanese and Jewish — she’s American,” Shtromberg says.

After Hannah was born, the Mizutani-Shtromberg household made it a point to gather for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

“I wanted Hannah to have some taste of Jewish tradition; and now, even if I’m out of town, she’ll say on Friday, ‘Oh, it’s Shabbat!’ It’s become part of her consciousness,” Shtromberg says. “And it’s a way of bringing the family together. I wanted my brother to come and see Hannah regularly. But he’d really come for Akira’s food!”

“Mama, can we do the prayers now?” pleads Hannah, who’s presiding at the head of the table with a tiny juice-filled Kiddush cup in hand.

We light the candles, cover our eyes and say “amen.” Then Shtromberg leads the blessings over the bread and the wine. Before digging into the food with our chopsticks and/or silverwear however, there is one last blessing. We put our hands together, and we chant in unison:


“That’s ‘let’s eat’ in Japanese,” Mizutani explains.

“It’s ‘betavon’ in Hebrew,” Shtromberg says.

“What’s ‘betavon’ mean, mama?” Hannah asks.

“Itedakemas!” Shtromberg says.

Laughter all around.

After dinner, Mizutani clears the table and settles in to watch the Lakers; Shtromberg curls up on the couch to enjoy the herbal tea she brought back from her travels in Barcelona. This is a Shabbat ritual, she explains.

“It’s my official time out, the only time throughout the week that, no matter what’s going on, I have time to relax,” she says.

As for Hannah, whether she likes it or not, it’s time for her ufuro, her bath.

For more information on LS, visit

A kosher steakhouse for BH? Well done!

New York’s upscale The Prime Grill, coming to Beverly Hills this week, isn’t your father’s glatt kosher restaurant.

For one thing, it’s a high-end steak house that also specializes in sushi. For another, the management expects it to become a destination for high-powered meetings and high-profile celebrities.

They go so far as to claim that the opening here means Los Angeles is finally catching up to New York in the Jewish culinary big leagues.

Located deep inside Rodeo Collection, an upscale mall, you get to the restaurant by going down a winding, sculptural flight of stairs — designed and built for the restaurant.

“The idea was to create an oasis,” Prime Grill publicist Josh Altman says, “so that you feel isolated from the street. We want every meal to be a special experience. We want it to be the opposite of stress.”

And, indeed, the waiting lounge/bar feels serene. There are touches of copper with greenish patina, woods of different shades and shapes, marble, leather, bamboo, stucco, in geometrical forms arrayed symmetrically.

“The design,” Altman says, “is intended to promote a sense of well-being.”

The main dining area seats 70. With the patio and other seating areas, the restaurant can accommodate 220 customers. Altman points to design elements that “pick up the food motifs. Just as the menu has steak and sushi, so the décor has classical steak house elements — dark woods — as well as traditional Japanese materials, like bamboo. Look at the ceiling,” he says. “It’s shaped in an origami pattern.”

The ceiling does have an unusual configuration, but it’s hard to make out what kind of creature is depicted — either a cow or fish would make sense, given the menu.

Prime Grill gives off an air of hip and luxurious, cutting edge and classical. At the same time, it’s strictly kosher. Atom Hovhanesyan, the sommelier, says that the wines are mevushal, meaning they go through flash pasteurization that permits them to be handled by anyone and still retain their kosher status.

The restaurant will follow “strict kashrut supervision,” assures Joey Allaham, owner of The Prime Grill. “But we don’t want people to think of us as a kosher restaurant that happens to be superb. We want them to think of us as a superb restaurant that happens to be kosher. We want to reach out to all of L.A. interested in the finest food, not just a Jewish clientele.”

“There’s never been a kosher restaurant like this in Southern California,” claims Samuel Franco, the restaurant’s director of operations. “New York has always been ahead of L.A. in certain ways. With the Prime Grill’s opening, L.A. now catches up.”

Owners of SoCal’s other high-end kosher restaurants, like Tierra Sur, Pat’s and Shiloh might beg to differ.

But Altman points to the sheer curtain on the booths.

“At the Prime Grill in New York,” he says, “we get celebrities and politicians: Madonna, Mayor Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani. The curtain provides some privacy for people like that to wine and dine without being gawked at.”

During Chanukah the restaurant will offer a prix-fixe meal for $125 per person. It includes such delicacies as smoked sable, plum-glazed short ribs and latkes with truffle peel.

The Prime Grill is located at Rodeo Collection, 421 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call 310-860-1233.