By Jill Weinlein, 5/03/2012
French Tunisian Cuisine
I was excited to meet Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher?, a café and take-away eatery on Pico Blvd. Cohen was born in Tunisia and lived there until he was five years old.
I went to Tunisia two summers ago and became infatuated with the street food, the people, and the striking blue and yellow doors. Eagerly, I wanted to learn more about this North African country.
Cohen’s family traces their roots back to 586 B.C. in Tunisia. In the late 1880s, the French government came into Tunisia and governed until the 1960s. When the French left the country, so did most of the Jews. Cohen’s family went to Paris, France to start a new life.
In the early 1970s, Cohen’s father took many of his wife’s French Tunisian recipes and opened a Kosher Tunisian restaurant, Les Ailes (The Wings) in Paris.
“Even though my mother was the chef in the family, over time, my father became the master chef,” Cohen said.
Les Ailes became a meeting spot for many Tunisian families. Cohen started working at the restaurant when he was 9-years-old. He overheard other Tunisians fondly talk about the gardens and medina quarters in Tunis. They talked about the narrow streets, street vendors and wonderful aromas. These conversations about his home-country inspired Cohen to film a documentary, “Jews of Djerb”. Djerb is an island off the coast of Tunisia. “Everything seemed smaller than what all of the Tunisians in Paris described to me,” he said.
After making the film, he decided to move to California to attend the AFI Film School. While in California, Cohen constantly fed people his home country food. “I thought I was escaping food and the restaurant business in California, yet I eventually went back into the industry in 1993 when I bought Tampico Tilly’s in Santa Monica,” Cohen said.
After the Northridge earthquake, he catered at movie studios and worked with Nancy Silverton at LaBrea Bakery making artisanal sandwiches. In 2005, he opened his own catering kitchen on Pico and sold his unique sandwiches to UCLA, USC, Beverly Hills High School, LAX and local hospitals.
When the space next to his catering kitchen became available, he expanded his business to include a take-away counter and a few tables. His restaurant became a hit. Fridays before sundown the restaurant is packed with families getting meals for Shabbat. He recently expanded and renovated the space to include more tables and outside dining.
“We now cater Kosher meals for Wolfgang Puck and Patina events. Sacha Baron Cohen (no relation) eats strictly Kosher and had one of our meals at an award event,” Cohen said. “We also make a Kosher lasagna for Maggiano’s at The Grove.”
He invited me to join him for a French Tunisian lunch with a little Israeli twist. We started with small dishes of soft sliced carrots with fennel seeds, and crisp turnip shavings dressed with salt and lemon. “I’ve tweaked some of my mom’s recipes to satisfy the American palate, yet kept the integrity of the dish,” Cohen explained.
We started with an authentic Tunisian sandwich. It’s a street food that incorporates a symphony of flavors. The sandwich, which comes in three sizes, is made tuna steak in olive oil with harissa (mild Tunisian chili sauce) and mechouia (Tunisian summer salad with tomatoes and peppers), hard-boiled egg, potato, pepperoncini, capers and olives. The baby sandwich is called a Fricassee served on fry bread. The medium-size sandwich is “a mama” served on a stirato bun. The king is the Assette Tunisienne entrée that is served in a deconstructed form.
Next, arrived an exquisite Mediterranean plate with smoky babaganoush (puréed eggplant mixed with olive oil and spices), humus, olive tapenade, harissa and Israeli salad (diced tomatoes and cucumbers, parsley and onions). It’s served with four fried falafel balls and pita triangles or a pretzel roll.
Cohen’s pretzel rolls and challah are a huge hit in Los Angeles. His challah pretzel bread is now being sold at Trader Joe’s. Imagine a darker challah bread with a delightful pretzel essence. WOW!
His pretzel roll hugs the Merguez beef sausage sandwich. The beef is spiced with chili pepper harissa and onions. The harissa makes the meat redder in color. Cohen’s partner makes all the sausages.
I asked if we could try the artichoke beignets with potatoes. Artichoke hearts are lightly fried and served with tender potatoes in a yellow gravy.
I didn’t have any room left to try one of the Tajines (N. African dish cooked in a special earthenware pot) or his Tunisian couscous dishes. He also serves a complete fish meal for under $20.
I did try a few of his non-dairy desserts. The traditional Middle Eastern cigar is rolled and dipped in honey and nuts. The almond pastry is very French tasting with its praline and raspberry center. The molten chocolate cake was gooey, rich and satisfying.
Bring your friends and schmooze while eating delicious sandwiches, healthy salads and gourmet Kosher Tunisian cuisine. $-$$ Open Sun. through Thurs. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Fri 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sat. Got Kosher? is located at 8914 W. Pico Blvd. (310)858-1920.
Tags | Got Kosher?