At the supremely uncool hour of 5:30 p.m., bartenders at Bavel are steadily mixing craft cocktails with names like the Zivah and Nebuchadnezzar. Custom wood banquettes and every other table indoors and on the covered patio will be occupied shortly after 6:00. And it’s not because Bavel attracts an after-work, happy-hour scene—downtown Los Angeles’ office towers are clustered a couple miles west of the booming Arts District. People are making a serious effort to be here. Unsurprising, given that in the almost five years since California-born, Israel-raised chef Ori Menashe and his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis, known for their hearty Italian fare at nearby Bestia, announced plans to open a restaurant reinventing the flavors of his homeland, local interest in contemporary Israeli and Middle Eastern food in L.A. has soared. Without trying, Bavel caught the wave. “We’ve been working on this restaurant for years, before the so-called movement started,” the pair commented via email. “For us, it’s not a movement, because it’s our family background and about cooking our families’ food.”
Menashe and Gergis may not have intended to be part of a trend, but Israeli food is now a thing here. What started in the United States on the East Coast with chefs such as Michael Solomonov and Einat Admony, and in London with Yotam Ottolenghi, is now flourishing in Southern California. The Ottolenghi effect took time to spread west, but the elements have long been in place. A warm dry climate, cultural diversity, health consciousness, and year-round access to fresh ingredients make L.A. a natural fit with Israeli cuisine and other foods of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. And while Jewish chefs here are eager to mine their heritage, it’s a big tent movement, open to non-Jews who want to experiment, as Californians are wont to do.
It’s about time. After all, Angelenos aren’t strangers to falafel and hummus, with the late Me & Me introducing locals (like me) to the staples of kosher Middle Eastern foods on its rustic patio on Fairfax Avenue back in the ’70s (as the more familiar Jewish smells of pastrami and pickles wafted over from Canter’s Deli a few storefronts away). “People know the flavors,” Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold said of local Middle Eastern places, “and they’re always restaurants that I recommend for vegans.”
Restaurants dotting the San Fernando Valley have long provided Israelis a taste of home, as have stalwarts that line the so-called Kosher Corridor in the Pico-Robertson community. (A representative of the L.A. consulate general of Israel estimates, perhaps optimistically, the local Israeli population to number between 300,000 and 350,000.) Our widespread open-air market culture means that to get a taste of artisanal halva, we shouldn’t have had to travel to Mahane Yehuda until last year, when Hebel & Co. launched.
“I say this, as somebody who’s never been to Israel, it seems that smashing together of cultures in Los Angeles is the mainstream, and it seems to also be what’s happening in Tel Aviv,” Gold observed. Ethnic and national identities mesh with various diasporas in local food contexts; Southern Californians are used to parsing differences between their favorite Lebanese-Armenian and Armenian-Persian joints, for instance. “It may be the act of culinary intermarriage that’s partly interesting to Angelenos, and not necessarily just the Israeli part,” Gold added. “But the Israeli stuff seems so exuberant.”
At Bavel, which finally opened in April, Menashe and Gergis transformed a former industrial warehouse into a stunning backdrop to showcase their sprawling creativity and skill. Slick marble tabletops are packed with hummus that in his recent review Gold called “magnificent,” silken foie gras halva paté, and formidable lamb neck shawarma roasted over raging flames and then served alarmingly intact accompanied by a fiery habanero salsa and crème fraîche-laced tahini. Skewered grilled oyster mushrooms presented over an emerald green bed of stinging nettle cardamom puree is unlike any dish in L.A., or anywhere else, really. A team on nonstop bread duty pulls out pita rounds and thick slabs of buckwheat sourdough bread encrusted in black sesame seeds from the wood-burning oven. Gergis brings almost an academic rigor to her desserts, incorporating dates, rose petals, and other historically resonant components. And while the chefs/owners draw from their Israeli, Georgian, Moroccan, Turkish, and Egyptian backgrounds, Bavel isn’t positioned as an Israeli restaurant per se.
The script at Bavel and elsewhere is familiar. The oft-invoked “Israeli-inspired” description gives chefs creative wiggle room to explore the broader region stretching from Spain and North Africa through the Sinai and beyond. It provides a buffer from the fraught gastro-politics associated with Israel. And these restaurants don’t cater to an observant, kosher audience. Implicit “we’re not just Israeli”-type disclaimers feel accurate and respectful to complex pre-Zionist Arab and Turkish origins. Meanwhile, conscious phrasing choices help stretch a business’s reach. At Kismet in Los Feliz, melawech is called “flaky bread,” for instance.
In 2015, chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, who’d made a splash in 2014 when they moved from Brooklyn and cooked some popup dinners in L.A., started crafting Instagram-ready street food and house-made beverages—the sumac-beet soda is especially photogenic—at Madcapra falafel stand, in downtown’s century-old Grand Central Market. The open-all-day, full-service Kismet followed two years later, this time with the backing of hot-shot chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo.
With an emphasis on premium produce and technique, Hymanson and Kramer, whose Israeli mother cooked a memorable shakshuka on the weekends, were among Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2017 and were nominated as a Best New Restaurant finalist for the 2018 James Beard Foundation Awards. Kismet’s dining room infuses a bright, relaxed SoCal sensibility that complements the wide-ranging yet cohesive dishes coming out of the kitchen.
A couple miles east on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, chef Conor Shemtov’s MhZh (short for mah zeh) merges an American urban hipster vibe with the unpolished charm of Tel Aviv sidewalk dining culture. The daily menu is hand scrawled on a paper bag. Neither arguments about who can claim Israeli food nor rickety outdoor seating are impediments to customers lining up for fairly priced browned potatoes and charred cauliflower, Eyal Shani-style, served informally on craft paper.
The genre is flexible and inclusive in ways that play particularly well in L.A. Chef Alex Chang, an Angeleno of Mexican and Chinese descent, joined sabra Elad Zvi, the co-founder of the buzzy Broken Shaker bars, at the Freehand Hotels in Miami, Chicago, L.A., and Manhattan, to research contemporary Israeli eating culture directly at the source. Wonderfully weird in all respects, The Exchange restaurant debuted in downtown L.A.’s new Freehand Hotel last summer. Its warm wood-clad surroundings nestled into a corner of the historic building and vintage tchotchkes galore collapse the 1920s through the ’70s into a new visual vernacular. Diners share salatim platters filled with smoked eggplant mixed with cherries and herbs and sprinkled with bonito flakes, an earthy peanut-laden grated cabbage slaw, and other dishes that prove Chang isn’t tethered to convention.
Anne Conness is another non-Jewish chef drawn to Israeli food. An experienced restaurateur who helms what she dubs a Nuevo Rancho Spanish/Mexican-style restaurant in the El Segundo neighborhood south of LAX airport, Conness’ gradual path to opening Jaffa began when she met Alon Shaya at a gathering of chefs in Napa. She then became obsessed with Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook soon after it was published. Going to Israel last year and taking Tel Aviv market tours with Delicious Israel founder Inbal Baum deepened her enthusiasm.
“I’m not Jewish, I’m not from Israel, but I love it the same way I love Mexican food,” Conness said, without wading too deeply into what’s become the heavily debated topic of cultural appropriation in the kitchen. Among her diverse clientele at Jaffa, “the Israelis are the ones who have embraced me the most.” After less than six months in business on West Third Street just west of the landmark Original Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax, Conness and her business partners are already planning a second location. On the Westside, they’ll bring signature items such as Conness’ pan-roasted eggplant with silan and esoteric seasonal farmer’s market ingredients like fava bean leaves, a wrap-style, mango amba-dusted sabich in lavash, and malabi pudding blanketed with SoCal-grown strawberries from heralded Harry’s Berries.
Whether or not the nouveau Israeli-Californian movement will permanently transform the food landscape or sputter out remains to be seen. But at the moment, it’s undoubtedly a golden age to experience a spectrum of traditional and unorthodox contemporary Middle Eastern food. (Things also came full circle in early June, when some of Israel’s most famous chefs including Eyal Shani and Meir Adoni came to town for the Taste of Israel festival at the Skirball Center.) Chef Danny Elmaleh, whose main gig is running an international network of restaurants for the upscale sbe hospitality group, opened Mizlala in Sherman Oaks last year as his personal passion project. The fast casual Dune got instant accolades when it started serving falafel and side salads in Atwater Village, and then opened two more spots in points east and west. Alex Sarkissian, the Iran-born owner of Momed (an invented portmanteau for “modern Mediterranean”), uses his Beverly Hills and Atwater venues to delve into eastern Mediterranean cooking, and address international refugee crises through the “immigrant dinners” he’s hosted.
Anticipation is high for Tel, beloved chef Jessica Koslow’s (of Sqirl) long-planned Israeli/Jewish diaspora concept that reportedly remains in the works despite a recent real-estate setback. Regardless, what people want to eat reveals deep truths. This wave reminds us that both L.A. and Israel are places defined at their core by immigrant communities and fluid, polyglot cultures. In other words, characteristics that are here to stay.
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Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.