Chef/Owner Alain Cohen was born in Tunisia, then moved with his family to Paris at the age of 6, starting in the restaurant business there. This explains French touches such as decorating a charcuterie board with grapes and walnuts and adding an extensive wine list (all Kosher).
But it's the Tunisian food that makes Harissa a destination restaurant, whether you follow a Kosher diet or not. Think tagines, Tunisian style couscous and kemia, the Tunisian word for meze. The kemia plate above includes what may be the best baba ghanoush in town, that is, if you like deep smoky flavor.
Cohen roasts the eggplant over fire rather than on a grill, then mixes in plenty of lemon juice and garlic. Also on the plate are eggplant with harissa, mechouia, which is a relish of peppers, tomatoes, garlic and lemon, and olive tapenade "a la Alain."
Harissa is everywhere, as a table condiment, as the seasoning for a harissa spiced burger (above). And in harissa mayo, packaged and sold at the restaurant. The relish tray behind the harissa in the photo at the top contains turnip slaw, carrots with fennel and cucumbers with mint and red onion.
True Tunisian harissa is just pure red pepper, says Cohen (above), who makes his with Japanese and California chiles, softened and ground with garlic and salt. "Each city in Tunisia has its own seasoning. Tunis is the pure one," he says. In honor of harissa, the small restaurant is being repainted red (and white).
Still another reason to eat at Harissa Restaurant is the artisan quality of the food. The cured meats on the board above are made there, a lengthy procedure. They are lamb pancetta, beef prosciutto and saucisson sec (dry sausage). Also on the board are chicken liver pate and a chicken pate with cognac.
Similarly, Cohen makes everything for his seafood board, which includes gravlax, smoked trout and a salmon mousse terrine with bits of cornichon (above). The small cups hold herring salad, taramasalata made with carp roe and slices of boutargue, which is grey mullet roe.
The restaurant is adding new menu items to go with the new name. A significant change is serving couscous for lunch rather than only for dinner. The meat and seafood boards are new too.
Other dishes include breik a l'oeuf filled with tuna and egg, accompanied here by mini Tunisian sandwiches called fricasse. Inside are tuna, potato, hardboiled egg, preserved lemon, salad, olives and capers, and the buns are dressed with mechouia and harissa.
Harissa and tamarind sauce accompany Tunisian style cigares a la viande, filled with ground beef seasoned with cumin and garlic (above). They're combined on a street eats sampler with breik, fricasse and avocado egg rolls.
Cohen is known for his pretzel challah and pretzel rolls. The harissa spiced burger comes in a pretzel bun, crostini from house made baguettes accompany the boards and salads. His bakery is next door, reached by a separate entrance.
There's no harissa in mom's sweet arissa almond cake (above), despite the name. New on the menu, it's a syrup-soaked semolina cake flavored with orange blossom water, paired here with non-dairy ice cream.
Harissa Restaurant, 3304, 8914 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035. (310) 858-3123.