November 17, 2018

High Holy Days memories spice up Bestia chef’s menu

Chef Ori Menashe was sipping mint tea recently in his wildly successful downtown restaurant, Bestia, reminiscing about the gourmet erev Rosh Hashanah meals he enjoyed during his childhood in Ramat HaSharon, Israel. They were all-night feasts for up to 40 guests whipped up by Menashe’s Georgian-Jewish father, a talented cook and bakery owner. 

First up were appetizers such as terrines of foie gras or beef kibbeh patties pureed with Swiss chard and onions before being browned in a pan. At least a dozen plates of mezze-style salads followed — hummus and tahini as well as sautéed zucchini mixed with yogurt, and fried eggplant pureed with walnuts, cilantro and lemon juice. Saffron infused the chicken soup. Then the main course would arrive, perhaps a platter of grilled or roasted fowl. 

“My father would have like 30 quails on a bed of rice with dill, pine nuts and dried fruit, depending upon what he had in the pantry,” recalled Menashe, 35, wearing his signature blue bandanna and a Bestia T-shirt under his apron. “When we’d start the meal, food would just hit the table. Then those plates would come off the table and new ones would be added.”

For the Yom Kippur break-the-fast meal, which was always much more low-key, the young Menashe was in charge of preparing the Israeli salad.

[Recipe: Saffron and lemon chicken stew]

Echoes of these Middle Eastern culinary influences remain on display at Bestia (, his rustic Italian-inspired restaurant located in an alley in the far corner of downtown’s Arts District. In the raw, industrial space — where reservations are booked two months in advance — the smoked chicken liver pate is adorned with a garnish of preserved lemons. The cucumber and plum antipasti come with leaves of the Middle Eastern plant purslane as well as yogurt, charred corn, dill, cherry tomatoes and black sesame seeds. 

“Today we’re going to have lamb belly on the menu,” Menashe said. “It gets confited in lamb and duck fat, and then we sear it on the plancha. We plate the lamb on top of a yogurt-based sauce with dehydrated orange peel. And then there’s a salad that goes on top: green almonds that have been pickled in saffron and honey, along with mint, tomato, pickled onions and pea tendrils.”

On a recent morning, Menashe closely supervised members of his staff as they sautéed mushrooms and pureed spinach to fold into gnocchetti, a spaetzle-like pasta that would be served with Bestia’s roasted marrow bone appetizer later that night. The evening menu also promised fare as diverse as spaghetti with sea urchin, a gorgonzola and kale pizza, and skirt steak with an apple balsamic and brown butter sauce. Guests would also be able to sample Menashe’s some 30 varieties of house made charcuterie.

His restaurant earned rave reviews and hordes of customers within a month of its opening in 2012; the following year, Los Angeles magazine declared Bestia one of the city’s top 10 new restaurants, and the year after that, Food & Wine named Menashe the “People’s Best New Chef, California.” In 2015, Menashe made that magazine’s list of 10 best new chefs.

Menashe — who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Israel with his family when he was 7 — had a telling nickname as a kid: “The Little Gourmet.” He often cooked with his father or watched his grandmother preparing dishes such as dolmas with rice, dill and pine nuts. During family vacations in Paris, young Ori relished the cuisine at the finest restaurants.

Back home, his father prepared school lunches for him of smoked salmon, foie gras and occasionally caviar — which he enjoyed but pretended to dislike because his classmates turned up their noses at the food. “The smell was a little too much for them,” he said with a laugh.

After serving in the Israeli army, Menashe began contemplating a culinary career during an 11-month backpacking trip through South America; between snowboarding excursions, he’d impress his friends by cooking meals at their campsites.

In 2002, Menashe moved to Los Angeles and landed his first job in a now-closed Israeli-Mediterranean cafe. During a meal at Angelini Osteria not long thereafter, he begged the restaurant’s legendary chef, Gino Angelini, for a job. 

“I told him I’d be a dishwasher; I’d even work for free,” Menashe recalled. 

Eight months later, Angelini hired him to work at his new restaurant, La Terza, where Menashe promptly got kicked off the pasta station because of his inexperience. But the young chef eventually impressed his bosses with his hard work and culinary prowess. He went on to spend time at Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza and All’ Angolo, where he quickly rose from sous chef to chef de cuisine.

Along the way, he met his wife, Genevieve Gergis, a talented home baker and now the acclaimed pastry chef at Bestia. Together, they aspired to open their own restaurant and got their chance after teaming up with seasoned restaurateur Bill Chait in 2010. 

“Before we opened Bestia, it was 10 years of my cooking Italian food, but I wanted it to be creative,” Menashe said. “I didn’t want to do a traditional menu where you have spaghetti carbonara. I wanted to do something that’s mine, with just different flavors and different views. My food even has some Japanese influence to it. [For instance,] katsuobushi is a cured tuna loin that gets fermented and smoked for months, but we do it with veal loin instead.” Menashe shaves the cured veal over his fusilli pasta with beef ragu and burnt onion puree.

Offal such as beef heart tartare and fried chicken gizzards, also have their place on the menu. “I do think it’s wrong not to use those parts of the animal,” said Menashe, who grew up eating organ meats in Israel. “It’s wasteful, like you’re killing more animals just because you want the perfect lamb chop.”

The couple named the restaurant Bestia (“beast” in Italian) because Angelini used to call Menashe a “beast” in the kitchen for his intensity and drive.

But the chef was dismayed, two weeks before Bestia opened, when a Los Angeles Times article described the grittiness of the location as well as its proximity to strip clubs and Skid Row. “I had been so in love with the space that I never noticed these things,” said Menashe, who worried that the story would scare off potential customers. (The neighborhood has since somewhat gentrified.)

His fears turned out to be unfounded. Stellar reviews soon appeared in LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, the latter written by Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold; the restaurant was packed every night thereafter. Bestia went from serving 120 patrons for dinner in those early days to 500 per evening today; 165,000 people visited the establishment last year.

“But I didn’t sleep for the first eight months of having this restaurant,” Menashe said. “I’d walk in at 8 a.m. and then stay until 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Currently, Menashe’s schedule is somewhat less demanding, but he still works 14 1/2-hour shifts daily. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are two of the only days he takes off each year.

His High Holy Days celebrations in Los Angeles are smaller than they were in Israel — and shorter, too, now that he and Gergis have a 2-year-old daughter, Saffron.

Menashe said he is often called upon to prepare a main dish for his family’s erev Rosh Hashanah meals. For one such dinner at his aunt’s home in Beverly Hills, he stuffed a duck with dill, oranges, Fresno chilis, garlic and star anise, then slow roasted it for three hours, “so it fell off the bone,” he said. “The fat just melted and became almost like this crispy glass.”

This year’s High Holy Days plans still are in the works for the chef, who will attend services at an Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur (he hasn’t yet decided which shul).

Menashe also is working on an upcoming, as yet unnamed Middle Eastern restaurant, which he plans to open next year in the Arts District. 

“I love it; it’s home,” he says of returning to his culinary roots. “We’re going to do a lot of crazy things.”

On the menu will be a whole oxtail flavored with shawarma seasonings, then roasted in the oven for 18 hours. The restaurant will also feature a dozen varieties of the condiment amba, an Iraqi fermented sauce traditionally made from unripe mangoes, but which Menashe will also render from plums, peaches, apples and pears. Among the charcuterie will be lamb leg prosciutto as well as a Turkish cured meat, basturma, which must be spiced and dried for months.

Eventually, Menashe would like to open falafel stands around Los Angeles, too. 

“We’d have our own bakery and deliver pita for all the Middle Eastern places,” he said. “That would be something fun for me.” 

Bestia is located at 2121 E. Seventh Place, Los Angeles, and open for dinner only.