LOS ANGELES – Jaffa.LA may sound off the beaten track, but when it comes to the Israeli kitchen, it’s the perfect fit here in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles.
So it is that Anne Conness, an adventurous chef whose name is synonymous with Sausal, the South Bay eatery known for Mexican/Nuevo Rancho cuisine, is introducing her take on Israeli food in a cozy spot on busy Third Street.
Seated at a table with partner Nancy Vrankovic, who manages the front of the house, Conness reflects on her long-term interest in the spice blends and flavors of the Middle East, in addition to being utterly taken by the well-known book she calls “amazing” – Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
Then, of course, there was an introductory, five-day whirlwind tour of Israel in 2017, which Vrankovic describes as “incredible,” including a particularly memorable visit to the North Abraxas restaurant of chef Eyal Shani in Tel Aviv, as well as the shuks of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The third partner in this Israeli food adventure is Brad Conroy, who is Jewish and arranged to have Rabbi Elisa Ben Naima affix a mezuzah to the restaurant’s front doorpost.
Conroy, a local entrepreneur who proposed to his wife over the loudspeaker on a flight to Israel, found the property that now houses the restaurant and contacted Conness “to see if there was something we could do together.” The happy result was Jaffa.LA.
One enters the restaurant through two weathered doors, giving the feel of “Old Jaffa.” These lead to an interior of simple sandstone walls enclosing tables and a central bar. Street-side seating is also available.
The sought-after atmosphere gets off to a running start with a jovial “l’chaim” on the menu, spotlighting drink options like Gin Limonana and Mango Amba Margarita.
Looking back on the trip to Israel, Conness remembers what most impressed her about Israel’s restaurants, especially in Tel Aviv, “is that the food was amazing.”
“Then there was this other component that we don’t always capture here in the US,” she adds, “and that was excitement, personality, vibe.... Our hope was to create that here.”
Jaffa.LA’s menu also includes vegan and vegetarian offerings, reflecting the use of fresh vegetables in Israeli kitchens and the changing food trends in Southern California.
“I like the idea of honoring the vegetable,” says the chef, who wanted to focus on the vegetables in developing her menu. With the right spices and the right technique, “you can make anything taste great even if you don’t mix in meat,” she explains.
But if one is interested in meat or fish, these options are here, too, including lamb couscous, beef brisket, braised short rib ragu, roasted chicken, and on the fish side, roasted salmon or whole roasted branzino (European bass).
Conness introduces our evening’s fare with a rhapsodic serving of house-made kubaneh (warm Yemenite pull-apart rolls) topped with black nigella seeds, often used in Indian cooking.
The bread is served with two colorful dipping sauces for seasoning pieces of the fluffy loaf: one of fresh, grated tomato and a second of spicy green zhug.
Next, she serves a platter of salatim, the endless variety of salads, dips and appetizers that accompany or precede many meals in Israel. First there is tehina with charred eggplant, including local cherry tomatoes, a nut-and-spice blend, and date syrup. I find that the saltiness of the tehina works well against the sweet cherry tomatoes.
The second item, a slaw, comes at you with a carousel of flavors, reflecting Brussels sprouts with pickled currants, date vinaigrette, a mustard emulsion, walnuts, and Pecorino Romano cheese.
THE FINAL item in the magical trio is a helping of roasted cauliflower, marinated overnight in turmeric, chili and Moroccan paprika. This dish includes dried plums and garlic labaneh, made in-house from a 50-50 combination of cow’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurts.
In between tastings of the salatim, Conness describes the Moroccan paprika as “life-changing,” exclaiming, “Moroccan food is the best!”
But of all the ingredients in the salatim, Conness is most taken by the tehina.
“To me, tehina has changed my life,” she confesses. Then, laughing out loud, she declares, “I think it’s like peanut butter. I’m addicted to peanut butter....”
The next item in the tasting is the North African Chickpea Stew, an anytime wonderful comfort food made with spicy chilies, Romano beans, and cilantro.
Then, to satisfy my love of pasta, I taste the Spaghetti with Moroccan Saffron Butter. The pasta, cooked al dente, is perfectly combined with Swiss chard, pine nuts, herbs and date vinegar.
And finally, who can pass up Israeli humus? Jaffa.LA’s Classic Humus has a distinctive nuttiness to it and features roasted tomatoes, olives, and olive oil, accompanied by a large piece of freshly-baked pita served in a paper envelope.
The house cocktails represent a nod to Israel’s biblical heritage and are based on the seven species – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. According to a menu that lists the restaurant’s cocktails and wines, the species represent “the seven attributes of the soul.”
On the dessert side, Jaffa.LA’s menu reflects the creative hand of Natasha MacAller, a former professional ballerina now known as the “Dancing Chef,” who consults with Conness on the restaurant’s pastries.
Among desserts on the menu one finds Hamantashen, filled with marzipan and topped with baked cinnamon apples; and a lemon-buttermilk Israeli malabi, which Conness recalls seeing “in a lot of places in Jaffa.” MacAller tops the malabi with black currant compote.
As a sign of its success, Jaffa.LA is proving popular with local Israelis, who often express surprise that Conness is not Israeli or Jewish. “Interestingly,” she confides, “Israelis are the ones that are most embracing of what we’re doing. So I feel grateful for that.”
Vrankovic chimes in on this subject, describing Israelis as “just the most genuine people in the world, so when they say something, one-hundred percent they mean it.” The very best complement they’ve given Jaffa, she adds, is that it gives them a sense of home – which for her is “really special.”
When Conness first started thinking about the kind of restaurant to open here, she wondered what would work in the neighborhood, located as it is near the sprawling Farmers Market and Fairfax Blvd. – the latter once the very epicenter of Southern California Jewish life.
Conness told herself, “Nobody’s doing modern Israeli, and this is the perfect neighborhood for it because it’s traditionally a Jewish neighborhood. In addition, it’s full of people who have traveled the world and understand food, and understand how great the food is in Israel... it’s awesome food!”
In what will surely be good news for Los Angeles fans of Israeli cuisine, Conness and her partners plan to open a branch of Jaffa.LA on Venice Blvd. in the Palms area of town. The target date for the opening is set for the end of April.
It’s another sign, I think, of the real meaning behind Jaffa.LA, something best expressed by Conness as “what we’re in this business for – you just want to make people happy.”
Jaffa.LA is located at 8048 West Third Street. Phone: 01-323-433-4978. Jaffa.LA.com.
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