Danny Elmaleh and wife Justine take his father’s vision to the next level
For family-run restaurants, one big question always centers on the end game. Will the next generation have the skills or desire to maintain the business? In the case of Simon’s Café, a Moroccan and Israeli restaurant at the base of Sepulveda Pass in Sherman Oaks, a succession plan was in place when chef-owner Simon Elmaleh retired in 2016.
Longtime SBE chef Danny Elmaleh, the visionary behind concepts like Cleo and Doheny Room, teamed with wife Justine on Mizlala, a Mediterranean restaurant with ambitions that belie the simple name (which translates from Hebrew as “eatery”). Danny Elmaleh retained a couple dishes that made Simon’s Café memorable, and has created a compelling, share-friendly menu composed mainly of small plates that deliver big flavors at high value.
Hummus ($7) is rich and creamy, served “masabacha” style with warm chickpeas, with a central pool of nutty tahini and dusting of spices. Ordering hummus also entitles guests to one round of soft, za’atar-dusted laffa bread that’s baked in-house and arrives hot.
Sadly, a version of hummus with crispy artichokes, cured lemon, marjoram gremolata, and Aleppo pepper is no longer available. Neither is the hummus bowl with soft-boiled egg and matbouha, spicy tomatoes and peppers.
Much of Mizlala’s menu, it should be said, remains a moving target. Some compelling dishes have rotated off the menu. Loved that eggplant tahini with fire-roasted eggplant, mint, and pickled Fresno chilies? How about firm griddled halloumi dressed with blood orange, cara cara, and kumquats? Both stricken from the record. Don’t get too attached. Thankfully, Elmaleh has a deep repertoire and has more than made up for losses.
Mizlala has modernized décor. Instead of pale yellow walls lined with vintage posters for French brands like Cognac Monnet and Mossant hat maker, the glass-fronted space now features a colorful tile arch and tables with white and gold designs. An open kitchen hosts counter seats. Shelves support decorative tagines and cooking vessels.
Each meal starts with a complementary pickle plate, a vivid combination of crunchy carrot, celery, cucumber, and bell pepper, fibrous jicama, Kalamata olives, and two tones of cauliflower. Every plate comes with a dish of red and green chile sauces.
The younger Elmaleh has serious skills with vegetables. Fried cauliflower ($9) features crispy, whisper-thin coats, plated in a shallow pool of herbaceous green tahini that’s showered with savory feta cheese and dotted with warming Madras curry.
Hen of the woods mushrooms ($11) are even better, with earthy folds smoky from the charcoal grill, an alluring glaze, and showers of sharp Parmesan, chives, and rosemary. Meanwhile the green falafel ($9) are some of L.A.’s best garbanzo bean balls. A soft and crumbly septet is planted in nutty tahini and plated around tangy tabouleh and pickled fennel.
Elmaleh seems like a head down, low-key chef, and is so press averse that he rarely responds to inquiries. Mizlala doesn’t even have a website. That said, he’s downright braggadocios about one dish, which he dubbed the “world’s best Greek salad” ($9). Tomatoes, cucumbers, crumbled feta, and Kalamata olives, capped with rye crisps, are harmonious. This clearly rates with L.A.’s top Greek salads, but the world’s best?
There’s some overlap in what one might find at Cleo, the stylish Mediterranean restaurant that now has branches in Hollywood, L.A. Live, Las Vegas, and South Beach. In many cases, the same dishes seem to be less expensive at Mizlala, though no one has broken out a scale or caliper in both restaurants to account for portion size. For instance, Moroccan fried chicken ($10) graces both menus. Strips of boneless chicken breast, normally the bane of my existence, taste good when prepared with spiced duck fat and dipped in spicy harissa aioli or tangy apricot mustard. Celery leaf provides a light touch.
Smart diners may gravitate towards other menu categories, but it’s also possible to get charcoal grilled kebabs, including ground lamb kefta, Simon’s famous merguez (boldly spiced beef and lamb sausages), and skirt steak marinated with cumin, ginger, and soy sauce.
Meatball shakshouka ($15) featured soft, luscious orbs crafted with veal, beef, and bone marrow submerged in a burgundy hued tomato sauce spiced with paprika, dusted with parsley, and bobbing with a runny, “perfect” egg. Since my last visit, Mizlala rebranded “shakshouka” as “tagine” and subbed out bell peppers for shishitos.
Simon’s legendary lamb shoulder tagine ($15) is a menu mainstay featuring tender chunks bathing in a dark sauce with a sweet-tart flavor from dried fruit, apple, and sesame seeds. Spoon the sauce over fluffy saffron rice.
During both dinners at Mizlala, so many savory items have proven tempting that I’ve never made it to dessert. For diners with enough sweet fortitude to power through, past desserts have included apple pie with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce; and lime Israeli cheesecake with lime curd, sour cream, and salted Graham cracker crumbs.
The San Fernando Valley is a hotbed for family-run Mediterranean restaurants, and plenty of other places deliver on food. Mizlala is relevant thanks to an interesting confluence of dishes presented with unusual flair in a prime location with premium value. The concept is markedly different than when Simon’s Café was still running, but Simon should feel confident that his heirs have staying power.
4515 Sepulveda Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, 818.783.6698
“Mizlala Dials Up Mediterranean Ambition in Sherman Oaks.” Eater LA – All. https://la.eater.com/2017/6/7/15735308/mizlala-sherman-oaks-dining-dime-inside.