December 14, 2018

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.