The Beloved Simon's Cafe in Sherman Oaks Becomes Mizlala
Chefs on the line in the open kitchen
Mizlala quietly opened recently, hidden in plain sight in the shadow of the perpetually congested intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways in Sherman Oaks It's located in a small, inconspicuous storefront sandwiched between Cucina Bene and Little Izaka-ya by Katsu-yu. A Whole Foods supermarket sits directly across the street.
Chef Daniel Elmaleh and his wife, Justine, opened the contemporary Moroccan restaurant in the space that once held his dad's eponymous restaurant, Simon's Cafe. Simon Elmaleh had operated a killer mom-and-pop Moroccan restaurant here since 2004 (previously he operated the original Simon’s restaurant in Encino), where he was a warm, friendly presence serving exceptional classics such as braised lamb tagine loaded with dried fruit and Merguez sausages. Before moving to Los Angeles, Simon had operated the first Moroccan restaurant in Kobe, Japan, for more than 18 years. Kobe took to the restaurant instantly, Simon said, because at the time diners in Japan were looking for “authentic ethnic cuisine.” It was the 1980s and early '90s, when the yen was beyond flush. The Kobe-based restaurant, where staff decked out in traditional Moroccan clothing served classic dishes, was in operation from 1986 through 1995, until the Great Hanshin earthquake decimated much of Kobe. Elmaleh's career had begun at Club Med in Israel, followed by an extensive stint on an Israeli cruise line where he honed his skills. He's fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese and French. And the language of hospitality.
Now Elmaleh's warm hospitality and love of cooking great food is much in evidence in his son Daniel's new restaurant (translated from the Hebrew vernacular, mizlala roughly means "eatery"). Daniel was born and raised in Haifa, Israel. At the age of 10, the family moved to Kobe, Japan (his dad is of Moroccan descent; his mom is Japanese). He was classically trained as a chef, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1995, and for years was the corporate executive chef for the SBE Group. Elmaleh the younger remembers spending a good amount of time cooking in his dad’s first Valley restaurant in the Plaza d’ Oro mall in Encino along with his brother, and later at Simon’s Sherman Oaks café. His dad’s successful restaurants ignited his Moroccan interest. Additionally, he put in considerable time in upscale kitchens such as Ristorante Giannino in Milan and Cleo in Hollywood.
Mizlala holds maybe a dozen tables in the L-shaped, minimalist space. There's an open kitchen with roughly a dozen high-backed counter seats to view the action. The sound system is primarily tuned to Israeli pop music. Your dinner may start with a variety of freshly made salads such as root vegetable slaw, sauced with rich tahini and apple cider vinaigrette, or side dishes like homemade hummus or sauteed Brussels sprouts complemented by roasted hazelnuts, mild chilies, sherry wine and julienned orange peel. It's easy to order a bevy of these before digging into the grilled kebabs or tagine.
Root vegetables with tahini dressing
Meatier plates include a saffron and lemon chicken tagine with green olives and cherry tomatoes. One menu item is fondly carried over from the Simon’s Café menu, the house-made Merguez. The menu describes it as “Simon’s Famous.” Simon himself, though retired, still makes these beef and lamb sausages for his son’s restaurant. The links are coarsely ground, with a hint of chili. One order is never enough. Justine, Simon's daughter-in-law, divulged that they simply could not leave the Merguez off the Mizlala menu.
Other dishes include lamb kefta kebabs, green-tinged falafel balls, spiced fried chicken and grilled branzino (Mediterranean seabass) with lebneh (Middle Eastern strained yogurt). The desserts are more in line with California cuisine, from sour cream cheesecake to chocolate cake topped with coffee-infused whipped cream to butterscotch pudding. Sadly, there is no eggplant poached in simple syrup, or baklava, for that matter (definitive dessert staples of Simon’s Café).
The San Fernando Valley dining scene is rapidly evolving, and Mizlala is part of the new guard. It's a family operation, with elevated cooking.
4515 Sepulveda Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 783-6698, facebook.com/mizlala.
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