Jakob Layman

They also happen to have some of the best fish and bagels in the city.

July 27, 2017

L.A. chef Micah Wexler had a big challenge when he was working on his new brunch menu. He wanted to use natural ingredients to make something look artificial.

"Wexler's is very much a place of nostalgia and childhood food memories," Wexler says. "The idea is that everything here is supposed to be the best version of the classics."

For the new brunch at Wexler's Deli in Santa Monica, which launched last Friday, Wexler knew he wanted to serve a barbecue cod bagel. When Wexler was growing up in L.A., there were smoked fish platters at every kind of family gathering and big party he attended.

"The smallest section was always the black cod, so it's always the thing everybody's fighting over," says Wexler, who calls out his cousin Jeff especially for taking more than his share of cod. "It always had this sort of atomic red dye on the outside."

Wexler, whose new-school Jewish delis in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market and Santa Monica take a "very natural, handmade kind of approach," wanted to replicate that redness without using synthetic food dye. After lots of experimenting, he came up with a spice rub for the smoked fish that includes turmeric, achiote and paprika. There's also a little sugar to cut the bitterness of the turmeric.

"You get really nice flavor out of [the rub], which is great," Wexler says. "But to me, it's very nostalgic because you've got that red bark on the outside. The other interesting part is if you're on the West Coast, this is called barbecue cod. If you're on the East Coast, it's sablefish."

Whatever you call it, Wexler, who went to college in New York, has created an ultra-buttery smoked fish. The "silky mouthfeel" is the result of R&D that started more than a year-and-a-half ago.

"The hardest thing for us was the drying process," says Wexler, who notes that getting the timing wrong can result in fish that flakes apart or fish that is mealy. "A lot of the real trick in smoked fish is the drying. That's what gives it its texture, its appearance."

Wexler also thought a lot about texture when he came up with the chocolate babka French toast for his new brunch menu.

"The thing about babka that makes it special is it's one of those pastries that has to have almost a slightly underdone interior," Wexler says. "When the dough is just a little bit raw still, that's when it's perfect."

The gooey French toast with vanilla-bean whipped cream is a reminder that food memories are often about how something feels in your mouth as much as how it tastes.

"With food this simple, you have to take all the elements into consideration: the flavors, the texture, the smells, the appearance," Wexler says.

So it's not surprising that Wexler makes good bagels in a city that has a lot of bad bagels. He understands what the experience of eating a bagel should be.

"It's got to have good outer crust but also needs to have a really chewy interior," he says. "If you take a bite out of a bagel, there should be that moment when you're pulling on it a little bit. It's got to have that fermentation, that development of the yeast and the gluten and all of that."

Other new brunch items at the Santa Monica location of Wexler's include a kippered salmon-salad bagel, assorted toasts, scrambled eggs and a green salad. Wexler's serves brunch all day, every day.