As soon as a parade of Moroccan-style nibbles at Itz Kosher lands on our table, it's easy to imagine we're sitting in a little cafe in Fez or Marrakech, just outside the central bazaar: a bright carrot salad flecked with spicy harissa, Cabernet-colored pickled beets, cracked cured olives and a fresh cabbage slaw with lemony vinaigrette.
These little noshes, so typically a part of gracious Moroccan hospitality, express the M.O. of this weeks-old Israeli-Moroccan restaurant in Studio City where David Adir, who co-owns the place with his mother, Esther, wants you to feel absolutely pampered.
Israeli-Moroccan cooking has its own style. "These are dishes I grew up eating my whole life," Esther says.
The cuisine doesn't belong to the same modern-day genus as kosher pizza or kosher Chinese that you see in certain ZIP Codes. Nor is it an invented fusion of food cultures. Its long history dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews fled Spain for Morocco and elsewhere. Generations later, after World War II, many Jews left Morocco to live in Israel. Dishes such as hummus and falafel got folded into the Moroccan mix and are on the menu here. Today in Israel, Moroccan food is everywhere — delis, cafes, even in prepared-food sections of markets.
At Itz Kosher, Esther's food bursts with bold, well-calibrated flavors. An appetizer of shakshuka, a peppery purée of long-cooked tomato, red peppers and garlic, is topped with two runny-yolk fried eggs that ooze into the purée as you scoop up mouthfuls with warm, toasted pita. Beef-filled Moroccan "cigars" wrapped in tissue-thin warka pastry come alongside a mound of freshly made hummus and matbucha, a spicy tomato-pepper dip that is otherworldly.
Esther's "surprise of the day," listed on a chalkboard, will change at her whim. She may do a slow-cooked tagine of lamb in a casserole with dates and other dried fruits or stuffed artichokes or bestila, the crisp filo-crusted pie of shredded chicken and its cooking juices perfumed with cinnamon.
Most days you will find plump chicken legs braised with handfuls of green olives tinged with a hint of preserved lemon. Plates heaped high with stuffed vegetables — bell peppers, zucchini and cabbage — overflow with a meaty beef and rice mixture. Saucy Moroccan-style fish, first seared then simmered with garlic and tomato slices, sings with flavor. Cinnamon- and cumin-laced meatballs swim in Mediterranean-style sauce, and Moroccan-spiced kebabs are on hand for fans of grilled meats.
You choose two sides to go with your entrée. These might be stewed zucchini or green beans plus fries or rice — or if you like, a little hillock of hummus or tabbouleh from the appetizer menu, which gives you a complete meal for about $12 to $14.
Don't pass up the chance to eat Esther's baklava when it's available. Packed with nuts, not overly sweet, and flavored with barely discernible rosewater, it may be surprising if you're used to the syrup-doused variety.
Facing the stainless steel grill hood that dominates the dining area, you get the feeling Adir has moved her family kitchen into the restaurant, where she cooks in plain sight of diners. "I'm just making things my mother and aunts taught to me and that I in turn always cooked for my family," she says modestly.
But there's something about this delicious food that makes me feel she isn't your average devoted family cook. Her mother, she reveals, owned as many as 16 restaurants — a virtual food empire in Morocco when the family lived there.
It must be that inheritance that has left its mark on Esther's generously served specialties at Itz Kosher.
Location: 11400 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 761-2550
Prices: Shareable appetizers and salads, $4.95 to $9.95; entrees, $10.95 to $15.95; sandwiches, $8.25.
Details: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. Visa, Mastercard. Parking lot and street parking. No alcohol.