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Down to the Sea‘n’ Fish

Even far into Malibu, the scene is very Hollywood: A handsomely scruffy young man in sunglasses confers with his acting coach over an array of sides spread across a slick wooden countertop, corners of the script’s pages dipping occasionally into tartar sauce and fry grease. The only other customer on this day is a middle-aged man in a white button-down, black slacks and a black kippah — a businessman in for a quick, kosher lunch before heading back to work.
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May 26, 2010

Even far into Malibu, the scene is very Hollywood: A handsomely scruffy young man in sunglasses confers with his acting coach over an array of sides spread across a slick wooden countertop, corners of the script’s pages dipping occasionally into tartar sauce and fry grease. The only other customer on this day is a middle-aged man in a white button-down, black slacks and a black kippah — a businessman in for a quick, kosher lunch before heading back to work.

The intersection between hip Hollywood and the observant Jewish community is a hallmark of the stretch of Beverly Boulevard, where Fish Grill first opened its doors in 1986. So it should come as no surprise that the restaurant’s latest location, separated from the beach by the perpetual bustle of Pacific Coast Highway, strikes the same inclusive note.

In fact, not much has changed in the move across town — the menu is unaltered, the décor familiar and dishes unfailingly delicious. There are some touches, to be sure, like the stacks of the Malibu Times and Malibu Surf Report available for perusal, and the photographs of famous surfers interspersed with more familiar, somber black-and-white images of old ships and slicker-clad fishermen. In general, however, founder Aharon Klein has been reluctant to mess with the tried-and-true formula perfected in his first three locations, all of them within Los Angeles’ city limit. In fact, enjoying a recent, late lunch on an unseasonably blustery day, watching curls of white foam on the choppy Pacific in dazzling springtime sunshine, it was difficult to believe that Fish Grill didn’t simply arise here, born of the beach itself.

The food is perfect seaside fare: mesquite-grilled fish complemented by a mess of sides and served with minimal sauce, so as to emphasize freshness. The fish itself is light and succulent, the mesquite giving it a rough, hearty edge. That mesquite is the restaurant’s signature touch. Although it requires additional permits and is occasionally temperamental, Klein claims that it is “the ideal flavor for fish.” French fries are plentiful, and the caraway-touched coleslaw is crunchy and sweet. There are sandwiches and salads, wraps and tacos. In every dish, however, the fish is the centerpiece, the restaurant’s specialty always on proud display. Simplicity and quality are the most important aspects of the business, Klein says — unpretentious food at an excellent price.

Fish Grill is also certified kosher, although Klein guesses that he has “the widest spectrum of nonkosher consumers” among peer establishments, perhaps in part because fish doesn’t require the extra production costs associated with most kosher meat. The new location, he says, brings in a healthy mix of people: “During the weekend, a lot of the Jewish community stop in on day trips up the coast, and then during the week, we get a lot of locals, tourists, of course, from the beach, really almost everyone. We get a lot of repeat business,” he says, “almost everyone who comes once comes back for more.”

He would know. Klein admits that he can be hands-on to a fault, checking out the contents of daily shipments of fresh fish and jumping behind the counter if there happens to be a line. “I do everything, I’m afraid,” he says, “I’ve actually been yelled at by my managers.”

Currently, however, he’s trying to take a step back and focus on the expansion and some menu tweaks. Though he prizes the edited simplicity of the menu (“make choices for people,” he says, quoting an unlikely source of wisdom: a book on McDonald’s business strategies he pored over as a kid), some additions are in the works. Klein has been experimenting with a commercial smoker and plans to begin selling his own smoked fish in the near future; sweet potato fries are also on the horizon.

There are some upsides to his workaholic tendencies: Klein is the first to praise the beauty of his new location, the peace and calm that the shore inspires. He got to spend a certain amount of time there in the process of building and opening the new location, during which he worked out an arrangement with the surf rental shop located on the floor above — a deal on an hour or two with one of their kayaks, which he’d take out to the ocean when he needed a break in the process of creating the Malibu outpost. The image is fitting: a man who has made a career bringing fresh seafood onto mainland lunch tables heading back out to the source of his livelihood.

“It’s just beautiful out there,” he says, and you can almost hear the sigh in his voice: it sounds like the faint whisper of seashells’ surf echoes, the whip of wind through an outdoor patio, the sounds of summer fast approaching.

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