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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Chinese-Jewish link thrives at Genghis Cohen

To those unfamiliar with Genghis Cohen, the restaurant and performance venue, its name can prompt a lot of questions.

Is it a Chinese place? With “Cohen” in its name and its Fairfax District location, is it kosher? And what business does a Chinese joint have hosting live music and stand-up comedy, anyway? 

It’s precisely this bizarre Los Angeles mix that inspired hospitality entrepreneurs Med Abrous and Marc Rose to buy the cheekily named establishment last year. Operating it has become a mission of sorts. (For the record, yes, it’s Chinese food, but Genghis Cohen is not kosher.)

“For 32 years when we took it over, and now for 33 years, they’ve been doing something right,” Rose said over cups of tea while seated in one of the restaurant’s roomy corner banquettes. “Med and I looked at it as an opportunity to make something better — maybe add to the experience but not change the experience.”

Abrous and Rose have a solid track record in the Los Angeles restaurant and bar scene, operating two successful eating and drinking spots. The native New Yorkers built the Spare Room bar and lounge — complete with two bowling lanes — in The Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in 2012 and turned it into a still-buzzy gathering place. (That’s nearly an eternity in fickle L.A. nightlife years.)

Last year, they opened Winsome, their first full-service restaurant. With its contemporary California sensibility and a menu and vibe that seamlessly transition through breakfast, lunch and dinner service, it quickly became a neighborhood staple on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. 

Abrous and Rose couldn’t resist Genghis Cohen’s kitschy cross-cultural milieu that has both local resonance and broader significance. 

“There are a lot of new restaurants in our city and they tend to be a certain demo,” Rose said. But on any given night at Genghis Cohen, he added, “You look at one table, it’s a family. You look at another table, it’s your grandparents. Another is hipsters. That, all in one room, is a beautiful thing.”

Genghis Cohen (genghiscohen.com) was started by music industry veteran Allan Rinde, who then sold it to the restaurant’s maitre d’, whose family operated it for many years. (Rose said he became aware of the business soon after moving to L.A. and asking fellow transplants the inevitable question: Where can you find good New York-style Chinese food in L.A.?)

The restaurant’s staff has remained the same since the transition, as have the food and beverage menus. However, the quality of ingredients has been upgraded, Rose said, and he and Abrous have brought a greater dedication to better overall consistency. 

Then there’s the bar scene by the front entrance, and the late-night crowd that comes for live performances in the back room that accommodates between 50 and 85 people. 

“There’s something uniquely strange and amazing about playing live music in a Chinese restaurant,” Rose added. Ever since the legendary Largo relocated from its nearby Fairfax spot to La Cienega Boulevard, Genghis Cohen has been a rare, surviving performance space in the area. 

When they assumed ownership, Abrous and Rose believed Genghis Cohen needed to evolve. Rose said he became sharply aware of the endangered nature of the “red-leather-booth” Chinese restaurant historically beloved by American Jews. 

 “I went on a trip to New York on kind of a research trip, trying to go back to all the places I went to growing up [in Brooklyn],” Rose recalled. “They’re all gone. Chinatown in Manhattan was a weekly or biweekly thing for my family. [Those restaurants] don’t exist anymore.” It was a fact he found true even in Queens and Staten Island.  

Rose pointed to shifts in food trends and demographics that have resulted in the staggering diversity of regionally honed Chinese restaurants that have, for instance, made the San Gabriel Valley an essential foodie destination. 

Meanwhile, despite some surviving stalwarts such as The Twin Dragon on West Pico Boulevard, the hanging lantern-adorned restaurant serving food adapted to the American palate (think moo shu chicken, wonton soup and shrimp in lobster sauce) has dwindled in L.A. and other U.S. cities.

“There’s an authenticity to this that I think people have forgotten about. It is definitely a comfort food. For us, there’s a sense of nostalgia that we’re trying to remind people of,” Rose explained. 

In the same vein, the new owners plan to explore fruit-forward and Tiki cocktails associated with the genre’s heyday. Rose gets genuinely excited at the prospect of serving flaming drinks and the like. 

Even with such nods to tradition, Genghis Cohen is going to experiment with some new concepts celebrating the Chinese-Jewish connection. Evan and Ari Bloom, owners of Wise Sons, the widely lauded modern deli in San Francisco, are heading south for a pop-up brunch at Genghis Cohen on Dec. 17. The $40-per-person menu will include individual entrees and family-style shared dishes, with collaborations appropriate to the setting.

Wise Sons’ crew will serve its acclaimed bagels, meats, chicken liver, smoked fish, rye breads and other artisanal staples, plus brews from Coffee Manufactory, the spinoff of Tartine, the famed San Francisco bakery. 

What better dish than pastrami fried rice to touch on divergent yet crucial aspects of the Jewish-American culinary experience? And when in L.A., you may as well serve a Chinese chicken salad. At the end of the meal, toddlers and seniors alike will be vying for that last bite of homemade babka

Yael Vengroff, beverage director for The Spare Room and Genghis Cohen, will offer specific cocktails to pair with the menu (not included with the prix fixe). It’s safe to say this would be the time and place to try a Cel-Raymos with gin, housemade Cel-Ray soda, citrus and cream, and Vengroff’s pickle juice-spiked Bloody Mary. 

“The team at Wise Sons are all big fans of Genghis Cohen and think it’s a perfect venue for us to do our first L.A. pop-up,” Ari Bloom said. He and his brother and their business partner, Leo Beckerman, grew up in L.A. “It’s a homecoming for us, where we can finally serve our friends and family in Southern California.” 

To honor that most essential of Jewish-American holiday rituals, Genghis Cohen will, indeed, be open on Christmas Day. (Just make sure to reserve a table in advance. The restaurant served hundreds of diners on Dec. 25 last year.)

And tradition will be respected. 

“Even with whatever changes we make,” Rose said, “it will still be the red-leather-booth Chinese food we grew up with and love.”

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