In a bright white-tiled kitchen on Sunset Boulevard at the western edge of Echo Park, chef Liz Johnson is igniting handfuls of hay over a charcoal grill. As the flames soar upward, she thrusts a skewered filet of albacore into the fire until a black, paper-thin crust blankets the fish’s exterior.
It’s a scene that would make perfect sense at an izakaya in Kochi, the coastal Japanese prefecture where warayaki, the flash-cooking technique of searing tuna over dried rice straw, was invented. But at Freedman’s, a four-month-old Jewish delicatessen wedged into a strip mall, slicing the subtly smoky fish over an anchovy-laced Little Gem salad feels as far out as Slash playing the Kibitz Room.
“When you think of the deli, you think of chicken salad or egg salad that you can buy in a pint and take home,” says Johnson, who’s perched on a bentwood barstool in the floral-wallpapered dining room at the restaurant. “It’s hard to explain that there is a ton of technique that goes into the food here.”
Even Freedman’s chocolate phosphate—the old soda fountain staple made with carbonated water and syrup—undergoes a rigorous reimagining here. Johnson uses powdered egg whites, xanthan gum, and an aquarium pump (part of a technique invented at Mugaritz, a mecca of gastronomic innovation in Spain’s Basque country) to create a gravity-defying geodesic dome of bubbles that erupts from the sundae glass.
Johnson is only 27, but she’s been cooking professionally for more than a decade, logging time in acclaimed kitchens on three continents, from Noma in Copenhagen and L’Effervescence in Tokyo to Mimi in New York, where her personalized approach to French bistro fare landed a spot on GQ’s list of 12 Best New Restaurants in 2016.
At Freedman’s, she shoehorns her experience into a menu that teeters between bubbe-approved classics and new wave creations that may best be described as Jewish-ish. There’s no pork or shellfish, and she knows better than to chef up matzo ball soup or a classic Reuben sandwich (though she does swap out corned beef for house-smoked pastrami, which is no small undertaking). Instead, her menu is guided by two questions: “What’s the best thing I can get? And how do I make it Jewish?”
When a purveyor showed up with impeccable sweetbreads, she transformed the offal into crunchy fried schnitzel. After becoming enamored with high-quality yellowtail from Baja California, Johnson combined a Japanese sushi technique (aging the fish on the bone for three days for a richer flavor) with Mexican serrano chiles and fresh local yuzu to create a bracing crudo, draping shaved pickled green tomatoes over the plate like delicate lace.
What’s Jewish-ish about that? Only the fact that Johnson once saw a jar of pickled green tomatoes at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York. “I guess it’s not really that Jewish at all,” she says after a moment’s thought. “But it’s really good.”
Freedman’s, 2619 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park
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