Never mind molecular gastronomy. When you bite into Tunisian-style brik a l'oeuf at Got Kosher Cafe you experience one of the world's great feats of culinary alchemy. Stab into the crunchy, paper-thin crepe (called malsouqua) and the runny egg yolk oozes out, enriching both the potato chip-crisp pastry and its filling of olive oil-bathed tuna, flecked with tart capers and parsley.
“Briks are equivalent to burgers in America,” says Alain Cohen, co-owner of GK. “Every Tunisian city has tons of tiny shops dedicated to selling brik a l'oeuf and little else. Most places are so small they only have room for one person who's usually perched on a stool above a vat of boiling oil. Watching them, you see what skill and exactitude it takes to make briks. The malsouqua is as sheer as parachute fabric so they must carefully spread on the filling. Then, in one seamless motion, they crack in the egg, quickly fold the wrapper empanada-style and fling the whole thing into the heated oil before the egg can leak out. The pastry seals shut as it cooks as if by magic.” GK Café may be the only restaurant in town to sell the soft-egg brik (on occasion we've spied the briks filled with hard-cooked egg and potato filling — but not this version).
People familiar with Got Kosher Provisions know it as a tiny take-home food shop specializing in full menus for Shabbat and Jewish holiday feasts. Until recently it was a minuscule storefront filled with banks of refrigerated cases. If you wanted one of its housemade merguez sausage sandwiches or something else from the brief menu, you had to sit outside on Pico Boulevard at one of the uncomfortable oilcloth-covered tables. But Cohen and Co. recently doubled the size of Got Kosher, adding a full-on dining area and expanding the menu.
They still sell those sausage sandwiches in house-baked “pretzel” buns. And there are other Tunisian street foods: the fricassee — small fried breads stuffed with tuna, egg and capers; the famous Tunisian sandwich — a Dagwood-style construction beginning with scooped-out Italian bread stuffed with layers of the tomato-pepper relish, mechouia, tuna, Israeli salad, perfect hard-cooked egg, vinaigrette-laced potato, preserved lemon, olives and capers, all dressed with spicy harissa sauce. And the assiette Tunisienne, the sandwich ingredients served like a salad in a bowl with a roll on the side.
The neighborhood has already embraced the shop's sunny Tunisian cuisine with its Mediterranean flavors. Its catering arm and wholesale kosher sandwich business are thriving, too. But Cohen's expansion was driven more by passion than necessity.
Now he says he has room to fill the tables with the more substantial meals of his ancestral homeland and to offer the hospitality that's so much a part of daily Tunisian life. Meals like those his parents served in Paris at Les Ailles, the restaurant they opened in the old North African Jewish quarter of Belleville after they'd fled Tunisia with nothing. Les Ailles became a gathering place for other Tunisian Jewish expats like themselves. “It was sort of like Canter's with Tunisian food,” Cohen remembers. Everyone knew it and many came night after night.
They were happy to find the traditional dishes, many which Cohen serves today — although he aims to make them fresher and lighter. There were steamy clay-pot tagines, including chicken baked with preserved lemon and olives, Tunisian-style couscouses and the one heaped with various meat and organ cuts (think Argentine parrillada) minina, a chicken frittata and other small plates.
Cohen joined the family workforce at the age of 9, and eventually held every position including chef and manager. But when he came to the States in the '80s he never intended to see the inside of a restaurant kitchen again. “I hoped to escape my life in Paris, and anything to do with it,” he remembers.
He saw himself as a film director. After film school in Paris, he made The Jews of Djerba, a social commentary on the people of the Mediterranean Island off the Tunisian coast (and home to his mother's ancestors). “I was fascinated that Jews, Muslims and Berbers had lived in perfect harmony there for centuries, while elsewhere there was all this strife.”
Ambitious, Cohen then came to Hollywood to enroll in the AFI film school. But a decade later, without employment and with new mouths to feed, he turned to the profession he knew best — hiring on as a manager and catering organizer for various restaurants.
Not inconsequentially, one gig was managing the La Brea Bakery's sandwich operation. “I learned a great deal from Nancy [Silverton],” Cohen says, including “how important it was to have good fresh ingredients and the role of excellent bread can play on your menu.”
That theme permeates Got Kosher's food today: Each of several house-baked breads is coordinated with a particular sandwich or dish. The from-scratch daily soups are usually fresh vegetable-based, and the “fresh-cut” french fries have never seen the inside of a freezer. Vegetarian choices are plentiful. One favorite is artichoke beignets, three huge artichoke bottoms deep-fried, then simmered in lemon-garlic broth. Rich, chewy and satisfying, they come on a bed of fluffy couscous.
Along with the expansion, Cohen hired experienced French pastry chef Youssef Sambu to create nondairy confections that are not the least abstemious — cookie-crusted pear-almond tart; chocolate lava cake; and richly caramelized tarte tatin — all traditional pastries that don't require cream to be absolutely delicious.
Although the new café soft-opened in February, the takeout business has been flooded with High Holiday and then Passover orders, so the new dining room is still flying under the radar. Now Cohen says he's ready to devote much more time to it, designating April 23-28 as grand opening week.
Does he pine for the director's chair? Not at all. “I came to realize it's always been the sharing of my heritage that means the most to me,” he says. He once did that with The Jews of Djerba; today it's by introducing brik a l' oeuf and his favorite little-known Tunisian specialties.