Arriving at the crowded restaurant Itzik Hagadol Grill in Encino is like entering the hustle and bustle of Israel. Large groups of happy, noisy people talk at once while consuming platters of wonderful salad dishes and grilled meats that overflow tables.
Itzik Hagadol Grill opened its doors in March 2009 to a parking lot packed with Israelis eager for a taste of home. The restaurant, located in the Encino Commons’ Plaza de Oro, is a clone of its Jaffa counterpart, the popular Shipudei Itzik Hagadol (Big Itzik’s Skewers), founded 15 years ago by Itzik Luzon.
We were invited by friends who said teasingly that they would translate for us, as everyone in the restaurant spoke only Hebrew. That was an exaggeration, of course — the menu is in English and Hebrew. However, many of the diners and servers conversed in Hebrew.
Before we even had a chance to review the menu, a young Israeli waiter arrived with a plate of delicious grilled pita topped with zatar, a blend of herbs, and olive oil.
The only decision to make at first was whether we wanted to begin our meal by ordering 10 or 20 salads. We ordered them all, and they were refilled as we ate. The individual dishes arrived with hot laffa, an Iraqi flatbread baked in a tandoor-style oven called a taboon.
Our table was filled with small plates of hummus, grilled eggplant, falafel, roasted peppers, roasted potatoes, cauliflower, Turkish salad, Israeli salad, sautéed mushrooms and Moroccan carrot salad. Containing no meat or fish, these dishes are a vegetarian’s delight.
In addition to the salads, we ordered from the variety of main courses of grilled beef, lamb, chicken, fish and kebabs on skewers — something for everyone. One of my favorites was the grilled chicken livers.
We finished our meal with a glass of nana, traditional mint tea.
Itzik Hagadol Grill is now celebrating its first anniversary. When I asked partner Michael Faiman if anything has changed since the opening, he said, “Yes. In the beginning the customers were 80 percent Israeli, but now the majority are a combination of locals, Persians and Russians.”
He noted that the restaurant has never changed the menu to please Americans. “It is exactly the same traditional recipes as the restaurant in Israel, and when dishes are changed on the menu in Jaffa, they are changed in Encino,” he said.
Faiman says a new addition — a large outdoor oven, just outside the restaurant — will soon be fired up to grill chicken and vegetables.
Later, we discussed the preparation of the salads, the ingredients, herbs and spices that go into each dish. The recipes shared here are among my favorites, adapted for your kitchen: Hummus, Moroccan Carrot Salad and Eggplant With Tahini.
Hummus is a simple, wonderfully flavorful dip or spread made from garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and tahini (sesame paste). Its texture is velvety, rich and firm enough to scoop up with wedges of pita bread or crisp vegetables. The taste is robust, nutlike, garlicky and so satisfying that you won’t be able to stop eating it.
(From “The Gourmet Jewish Cook”by Judy Zeidler)
l can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 cup tahini (sesame paste)
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil
6 fresh parsley sprigs, stems removed
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
Place the garbanzo beans and liquid in a food processor or blender and pulse until pureed coarsely.
Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and cumin; puree until smooth. Add olive oil in a thin stream and continue blending. Add the parsley leaves and l teaspoon salt. Add additional salt to taste.
Serve with hot pita bread and sliced raw vegetables such as carrots, zucchini and mushrooms.
Makes 8 servings.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
When it comes to Moroccan salads, this is my favorite. The combination of carrots (boiled, but still a little crunchy) tossed with cilantro, cumin, paprika and ginger puts taste buds on alert.
4 cups water, salted
2 bay leaves
1 pound carrots, sliced 1/8-inch thick
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups salted water and the bay leaves to a boil over high heat. Add carrots, cover pot, return to a boil, then remove from heat. Discard bay leaves. Drain carrots, rinse them with cold water, and transfer to a serving dish.
In a food processor or blender, combine vinegar, oil, garlic, onion, parsley, cilantro, cumin, paprika, ginger and tomato paste; puree until smooth.
Gently stir the mixture into the carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
Eggplant With Tahini
Eggplant is a versatile vegetable that is much neglected in this country. Beautiful dark purple eggplants are used in many recipes throughout Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. White eggplants can be found in specialty produce markets. The delicate yet pungent flavor is great seasoned with garlic, olive oil and salt.
1 large eggplant
1 medium onion, finely chopped, juice squeezed out and discarded
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste)
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons water
Dash cayenne pepper
Parsley sprigs for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place it cut-side down on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake it until its skin is charred and the inside is tender, about 20 minutes. Let the eggplant cool, and then peel it and chop finely. Place eggplant in a mixing bowl, add the onion and parsley and blend well.
In a separate bowl, stir together the tahini, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, garlic and water until well blended.
Stir the tahini mixture into the eggplant mixture. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Stir in remaining lemon juice to taste. Garnish with parsley.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.