Tunisian Cuisine for Everyone

While holding the crispy ends of a Tunisian style Brick L’Oeuf et au Thon at Harissa on Pico Blvd., I took a bite in the middle and discovered a pleasing, warm soft-cooked egg dripping onto my lips. The crackly crunchy crust looks similar to a large crepe or quesadilla filled with tuna, parsley and capers.

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Years ago I met owner and chef Alain Cohen when dining at Got Kosher? Located on Pico Blvd, this talented Tunisian chef prepared a delicious and memorable Kosher lunch. When my dear friend Gerry recently invited me back to a reunion lunch with Cohen, I immediately accepted.IMG_2635

After waiting four years, he finally received his beer and wine license, and renamed his Kosher restaurant Harissa, after the classic Tunisian red condiment. In Tunisia, each city adds a special spice to make their harissa unique. It could be cumin, caraway, red pepper flakes and garlic. Cohen uses his mother’s recipe from his family’s restaurant in Paris. It’s made with red peppers, garlic, salt and a little olive oil and lemon. Harissa is a dip or spread to enhance bread, meat, chicken, omelets and vegetables. Cohen doesn’t make it too spicy to burn ones palate. It’s mild here to dazzle the dishes, instead of overpower them.IMG_2632

“My goal is to bring delicious food to young Jews and Los Angelenos,” said Cohen as we sat down near at a window table. “Right now they see incredible food photos on Instagram, yet due to religious culinary restrictions, feel deprived. I’m recreating those dishes at Harissa for everyone, including those who choose a Kosher diet to enjoy.” Cohen also wants Southern Californians to experience the underrated, yet healthy and delicious Tunisian cuisine. The Brick Oeuf et au Thon is an Instagram favorite.

“Cooking Kosher is a balancing act,” Cohen said. “You can’t use dairy, milk, cream, shrimp or pork. It’s like you are cooking with one hand behind your back. You can only cook with Kosher ingredients that are approved by rabbis.

With Pico Boulevard’s Harissa, chef and owner Alain Cohen’s aim is simple – he wants Southern Californians to experience the underrated, yet delectable and kosher Tunisian cuisine.IMG_2637

I kicked off my meal with Cohen at Harissa with the Tunisian-style breik à l’oeuf et au thon, which, with its crispy crust, looks similar to a large crêpe or quesadilla. Taking a bite of the samosa-like pastry in the middle, I discovered a warm soft-cooked egg, dripping with yolk, as well as savory tuna, parsley and capers.

To follow, a plate of fricassee mini Tunisian sandwiches arrived filled with olive oil-enhanced tuna, chopped potato, sliced hard-boiled egg, preserved lemons, olives and capers. To top it off, the bread was dressed with harissa.

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To sample Cohen’s cured meats, try the street eats sampler and the kosher charcuterie board. They pair nicely with his famous challah bread and, of course, his harissa. I also tried out the chicken pâté to spread on the bread as well. Made with cognac, it’s smooth, creamy, savory and slightly sweet.

Next, we enjoyed a plate of roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce, a tasty dish inspired by Cohen’s dining experience at the Venice restaurant Gjelina. He also makes artichoke beignets with artichoke hearts dusted in flour, egg and oil. Like many other Tunisian dishes, these beignets are twice cooked­ – fried first in oil and then stewed until they are soft and tender. They are exquisite when dipped in harissa.

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Tunisian tajines are traditional North African stews served with couscous, and a choice of beef, lamb or chicken. Cohen additionally adds meatballs to these spice-packed dishes, including versions made with trout and tilapia.

A platter of grilled meat called grillade royale also arrived to our table, featuring grilled steak, lamb shoulder, chicken, mergeuz sausage and seasoned sweetbreads. As Cohen shared with me, North African kings would feast on a similar meal. The juicy steak is lean, grass-fed rib-eye beef and served with crispy fries.

Cohen makes a slightly sweet and tart chicken lemon couscous for a modern twist on a classic traditional Moroccan chicken dish. The dish features turmeric and a handful of golden raisins to balance the acidity of the lemon, and goes well with harissa too. Other couscous dishes include short rib beef bourguignon, and a lamb stew with prunes and toasted almonds.

Since some of his guests have gluten-free dietary restrictions, Cohen offers cauliflower couscous, quinoa and gluten-free sandwich bread. For vegetarians, Cohen makes a grilled tofu steak for plant-based protein.

We finished with glasses of slightly sweet mint tea, macarons and cakes. The macarons are not the traditional French pastry, but more of a country version filled with a pleasing pistachio paste. Cohen also served us his golden harissa cake, a traditional orange blossom-soaked cake with ice cream. Try the hazelnut torte as well, made with Cohen’s own kosher Nutella.

Take a culinary journey with Alain Cohen for flavorful healthy cuisine that appeals to everyone. Harissa serves lunch, dinner, deli takeaway, Sunday barbecue and a Shabbat menu. $$ 8914 W. Pico Blvd., (310)858-1920.

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