Photography by Drew Clayton
But what happens when sushi appears on the kosher menu, and how does that affect what it means to be a kosher restaurant? La Seine is asking exactly that, and, in the process, is redefining what it means to keep kosher. In practice, kosher law – or kashrut law, in Hebrew – is a set of standards governing food preparation and diet derived from the Torah. These laws cover everything from which food groups to eat together (no meat with dairy) and which fish to eat (no shellfish) to how vegetables need to be washed (very, very thoroughly). Essentially, these laws regulate how food is prepared, but they in no way dictate what is prepared. Yet historically, kosher restaurants serve the same dishes, with recipes and ingredients that have been crafted and time-tested over centuries; dishes which are irrefutably kosher and carry the potent weight of history.
During a pause in conversation, Laurent notices my gaze lingering on the yarmulkes. “It’s not because you see me with a kippah [yarmulke] on that I want to open a kosher restaurant,” he says, “we did not open a kosher restaurant, I want to make that very clear. This is a fine-dining restaurant that happens to serve kosher food.” He speaks firmly, giving me the same pitch he gave Alex Reznik when wooing him for the La Seine Chef position.
Alex, though born and raised in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, reacted to Laurent’s pitch as most chefs would have: with a “Kosher? Are you kidding me?” To them, cooking kosher means forfeiting creativity, innovation, and freedom. Despite this, Alex awoke the next day with a nagging question in his mind: “Why does kosher have to be bad?” And so the gauntlet was thrown. Alex accepted the challenge and began to create a menu that was both modern and kashrut compliant.
Overcoming the connotations of the term “kosher” was the first of many challenges facing Chef Reznik. Another arose from the decision Laurent had made to create La Seine as a meat restaurant. Since meat and dairy may not be consumed together, this meant that Alex could use no dairy in any of his recipes. While some would find such restrictions daunting, Chef Reznik saw them as a frame on which to stretch his creativity. He is now producing some revelatory dishes that may never have existed had it not been for the limitations of kashrut law.
Alex explains how parameters can actually foster imagination: “Doing kosher, it takes away a crutch. When you’re cooking with lobster, or you’re cooking with pork, it’s easy. You need flavor? Grab some pork fat, throw in some butter. But what if you can’t? You problem solve. It’s just food; you don’t have to have bacon on everything.” One of Alex’s favorite dishes is also one of his major problem-solving triumphs: hangar steak with risotto and shallot sauce.
People have a preconception of kosher restaurants – they come here to try the deli food, which we don’t serve.
Risotto is traditionally finished with butter or cream, so in order to put it on the menu, Alex had to find a different way to introduce flavor and texture. His solution: marrow. “It’s like meat butter!” he exclaims, with a chuckle. The final product is a risotto with such creaminess and depth of flavor, that echoes the hangar steak in such a harmonious way, that it’s a wonder every chef in town doesn’t prepare risotto this way.
Back in the dining room with Laurent, I ask him how his customers react to a seasonal menu which is kosher, but is not a traditionally “kosher menu.” The answer, for most, is a reaction of surprise. “People have a preconception of kosher restaurants – they come here to try the deli food, which we don’t serve.” Some people, it seems, feel misled by the implications of the term “kosher.” Most, however, are pleasantly surprised by what they find: a seasonal, locally- sourced – and yes, kosher – restaurant.
“Our concept is simple. We are really about what’s in season, what’s local; what’s indigenous and, most importantly, what we want to eat.” he says, “For example, we have an amazing heirloom tomato soup, but it’s off the menu because it’s not in season. Now we have the Jerusalem artichoke soup, one of Alex’s signature dishes.”
When it comes down to it, La Seine is about good food. Laurent Masliah and Alex Reznik have forged a new path on the Westside of Los Angeles; they have found a way to innovate within tradition while still supporting the community from which that tradition came. But really, it’s about the food. If you don’t go for kosher, go for the crudo.
14 North La Cienega Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA