'We want to give that family feeling you get from the shuk'

LA’s swanky new Carmel eatery serves upscale Tel Aviv market fare, no added politics

Four friends focus on their love of the White City’s Carmel Market by bringing Angelenos gourmet spins on local classics despite anti-Israel spike after Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities

From left to right: Carmel restaurant partners Liron Hazan, Ronnie Benarie, Asaf Moaz, Yoav Schverd, in their Los Angeles, California eatery, May 2024. (Kelly Hartog)
From left to right: Carmel restaurant partners Liron Hazan, Ronnie Benarie, Asaf Moaz, Yoav Schverd, in their Los Angeles, California eatery, May 2024. (Kelly Hartog)

LOS ANGELES, California — Less than a month after Carmel’s May 2 opening on LA’s trendy Melrose Avenue, the restaurant, which can seat 108 (plus 20 in a private room), was booked solid for the next two weeks.

On an ordinary Wednesday, three hours before opening, the place bustled with staff making their way through the sleek corner eatery with its smooth wood furniture. A plush lounge area opens onto a gleaming, well-stocked bar. Tables are nestled across the floor, with banquet benches and padded grey seating underneath the large windows.

The open kitchen is visible from the entire house. On this morning, dozens of eggplants roasted on an open flame as cooks busily chopped vast quantities of vegetables. A huge wood-fired oven with a gleaming steel door took up almost one-third of the prep space.

Around the dining area, the exposed brick walls boast stunning black and white street prints from 1970s Tel Aviv, signed by renowned Israeli photographer Yael Rozen.

Staff sport white t-shirts with the words “Burika, Burika, Burika!” emblazoned in bright blue on the back.

Not to be confused with bourekas, the savory filled puff pastry pockets beloved by Israelis, “burika” is a crispy deep-fried dough treat — and the famous catchphrase of a well-known vendor of them at Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel, also known as Carmel Market.

Interior of Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (courtesy of Carmel)

The t-shirts make sense once you understand the raison d’être behind the restaurant — serving elevated Tel Avivi cuisine inspired by the city’s bustling Carmel Market.

That background is reflected in many of the menu items, including homemade tortellini filled with a Jerusalem artichoke puree, drizzled with lemon-infused dressing, with parmesan and faro beans.

The rotating menu uses only fresh and seasonal ingredients and is designed around small bites and shareable plates.

“I wanted all the sights and sounds and family feeling that you get from the shuk,” said head chef Asaf Maoz.

“I also really wanted it to feel like my grandmother’s place,” he added, explaining that he comes from a Syrian and Italian background.

“Including arak!” co-partner Liron Hazan piped in, referring to the local anise-flavored spirit similar to ouzo. “Everyone brings arak and drinks it in the market. We have a special welcome shot with arak. This is a big part of our restaurant’s identity.”

Interior of Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (courtesy of Carmel)

The idea for the restaurant was formed just over a year ago by four friends — Maoz, event manager Hazan, chef Yoav Schverd, and hospitality and entertainment veteran Ronnie Benarie.

Schverd and Benarie had been working together since 2016, opening two well-known kosher restaurants, Nua in Beverly Hills and Pita Bu in Malibu, while Maoz moved from New York, where he had been the master chef at the celebrity magnet 19 Cleveland in lower Manhattan.

All of the friends’ eyes lit up when they spoke about the food on offer.

“We serve knafeh,” Maoz said, aware that many non-Israelis have never tried the traditional Arabic dessert made of needle-thin pastry threads and melted cheese soaked in sweet syrup.

“And everyone says it’s the best,” Hazon added.

Knafeh at Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (Kelly Hartog)

This reporter had yet to find the confection at all in Los Angeles and said as much. Schverd suddenly slipped away and five minutes later returned with a silver platter of piping hot knafeh. Cheesy, gooey, crispy and light as a feather, it was as all good knafeh should be. The description on the menu promises to “send you back to Jerusalem” — and it delivers.

However, it takes more than great food to create the entire experience that is Carmel.

“Aside from Asi, who’s our head chef, we don’t have specific titles,” said Benarie. “We’re four partners. I think all our expertise in the restaurant industry overlaps, which allows us to make decisions unanimously on a lot of things.”

Those skills came in handy quicker than expected when they scheduled a dinner for potential investors. The date? October 8.

The partners’ shoulders visibly sagged as they recalled the events of October 7, when some 1,200 people in southern Israel were butchered in a Hamas-led invasion and 251 kidnapped to the Gaza Strip. All four of the men wore “Bring them home” dog tags, referring to the 116 hostages still held by Hamas.

“We all just wanted to go home,” said Schverd. “We wanted to be with our families.”

“All I could think was, I can’t cook,” Maoz said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Benarie shook his head. “But we know life goes on. It has to go on. So, we did what we had to do.”

Interior of Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (courtesy of Carmel)

Earlier in the day, all four attended a pro-Israel rally in the city and then went to prepare an event for some of Hollywood’s wealthiest people.

“It actually turned out really well,” Hazan said. “Everyone was just open and talked about what had happened.”

Whatever they did, it worked. They secured investors, received the keys to the place in December, and quickly got to work renovating the space.

During that period, despite the ongoing tensions, none of the men experienced any anti-Israel backlash. However, Maoz said that when he was back in New York to help prepare for his wife and child to move to LA, there were violent protests outside 19 Cleveland, which is also owned by an Israeli and serves Mediterranean-style food.

“There was a huge pro-Palestinian march,” he recalled. “They started climbing the walls and shaking the scaffolding. We had to lock the doors and the diners were really scared.”

A variety of dishes at Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (Kelly Hartog)

Thankfully, that has not been the experience at Carmel. While one of the public relations companies they initially hired told the partners they could not handle doing PR for Carmel in the current climate, the friends can laugh about it now. And though the headline of one of the restaurant’s first writeups said it was opening at the “worst possible moment,” the four partners disagree.

Carmel is “about bringing the elevated Tel Aviv dining experience to LA” along with the multicultural aspect of Carmel Market, said Benarie. “It’s not about politics; it’s about bringing people together.”

“One of our chefs is a Muslim guy,” Schverd added. “When we get together at night and have a drink of arak, he has his own special juice because he can’t drink. But he’s one of us. We’re all a family.”

Speaking of drinks, many are infused with an Israeli twist.

“We have a lot of ingredients that are Middle Eastern, that are Mediterranean specific,” said Hazan. “We have a tahini cookie infused with vodka in our espresso martini, for example.”

Maoz heads to the kitchen and whips up several dishes, each richer and more filling than the one before, including Moroccan frena bread, which is fermented for 72 hours and comes out of the oven pillowy soft, delectably chewy, and melts in the mouth like cotton candy.

Moroccan cigars at Carmel restaurant in Los Angeles, May 2024. (Kelly Hartog)

“The cigars are my favorite. I could eat them all day,” Hazan said. Called “My Grandma’s Mushroom Cigars” on the menu, the restaurant’s version of Morocco’s answer to spring rolls is vegetarian and wickedly spicy. Light as a feather and punched up with the Middle Eastern baharat spice mix, pine nuts, and chuma pepper, they are served alongside a creamy dip. The smoked eggplant musabbaha, made with chickpeas and sheep’s milk yogurt, is also a rare treat.

While Chef Maoz includes kosher meat on the menu, including a hanger steak kebab and ribeye, there are also decidedly non-kosher dishes, such as grilled Mexican prawns and Peruvian sea scallops — a nod to the religious diversity in Israel, where tradition is often held dear, even if the letter of the Jewish law is not.

Still, Maoz is adamant that Carmel does not serve Angelenos simple Israeli food, but rather the somewhat more elegant cuisine of Tel Aviv.

“You’re not going to see typical Israeli fare here,” he said. “No schnitzels, no falafel, no hummus — I don’t believe hummus should be served after 2 p.m.,” he said, though he added that he was likely putting an “elevated hummus” on the brunch menu.

For now, all four are happy that the restaurant is thriving, despite the war, protests, and a huge spike in antisemitism across the United States. At the end of the day, they said, they are putting Carmel front and center, creating a community, while raising their glasses of arak to all their friends and families back home, keeping them in their hearts at this fraught time.

“This is for them,” Schverd said. “We are representing Israel right here.”

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