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Leah (Spielberg) Adler, the mother of Steven, Nancy, Sue and Anne Spielberg. Credit: Courtesy of the Spielberg family.
Leah (Spielberg) Adler, the mother of Steven, Nancy, Sue and Anne Spielberg. Credit: Courtesy of the Spielberg family.
featureJewish & Israeli Culture

Leah Adler, culinary star (mom of Steven Spielberg, star director)

Dining at the Milky Way was an experience—kosher food with zip and a dash of ethnicity served up in a cozy atmosphere where family photos and Leah’s paintings lined the walls.

It was more than 20 years ago when Leah Adler gave me a tour of her Los Angeles restaurant, the Milky Way. As we talked, one of her comments remains lodged in my memory: “My food has to be exceptionally good—and it just happens to be kosher.”

Leah Adler
Leah Adler in her younger years. Credit: Courtesy of the Spielberg family.

The Milky Way. In astronomy, it means the stars that meld together into a single band of light. Maybe that was the inspiration for Leah and her second husband, Bernie Adler, to combine the very best in a strictly kosher dairy restaurant. When the restaurant opened in 1977, Leah was determined to introduce fine comfort food, redolent with spices and fresh flavors, to the Orthodox Jewish community.

And it took off. Dining at the Milky Way was an experience—kosher food with zip and a dash of ethnicity served up in a cozy atmosphere where family photos and Leah’s paintings lined the walls. Then there was the added attraction of a feisty, petite Leah flitting between tables. She was like the Energizer Bunny. A slash of bright red lipstick and swanky denim reflected her adventurous, bold spirit. She talked to everyone, schmoozing with celebrities equally with the not-so-famous. Everyone was welcome, no matter their faith or background. People loved it. She was the family matriarch of the place (and being Steven Spielberg’s mother didn’t hurt).

Leah Adler
Adler in her LA kosher restaurant, the Milky Way, before the renovation. Credit: Courtesy of the Spielberg family.

Leah reached outside culinary norms. Forty years ago, who would have ever thought that chimichangas could be made kosher? Under the direction of a mashgiach (a Jew who supervises food so that it is prepared according to the laws of kashrut), she encouraged Latino cooks who made LA their new home to prepare dishes they had grown up with. Sure, there were still the mouthwatering kugels, blintzes and kreplach on the menu that catered to the traditionalists, but the multi-ethnic dishes quickly attracted a growing clientele.

When Leah Adler passed away at the age of 97 on Feb. 21, 2017, the restaurant closed. Could the Milky Way be the same without Leah’s dynamic personality? The Spielberg family—Steven and his sisters, Nancy, Sue and Anne, decided to reopen—with a facelift. They reached out to Phil Kastel, the founder of PK&J Hospitality, a group that provides strategic guidance and leadership in culinary development.

Bright, innovative and with years of experience as an executive corporate chef, Phil was ready to work with the family to lead the Milky Way into a new era. The red carpet was replaced by glossy wood floors and the blue booths were reupholstered, while framed family photos still hang on newly painted walls. A three-minute video of Leah and her family is shown all day. Although the staff is small (only one chef and three cooks in the kitchen), everyone pitches in. On any given day, you might find a cook passing out menus, the mashgiach may be rinsing fresh herbs, and Phil or Stephanie, the general manager, are delivering plates to the table. The Milky Way has expanded its repertoire with Sunday brunch and special events, such as dinner and a screening of short, award-winning movies.

Leah Adler Restaurant , The Milky Way
The updated interior of the Milky Way. Credit: Courtesy.

Milky Way’s “Classic Kosher Cuisine” is a combination of contemporary flavors and eye-appealing dishes. Phil notes that “with travel, tastes have become sophisticated and that extends into the kosher culinary world.” Plenty of classics like Adler’s own cheesecake remain, but you’ll find dishes like Salmon Piccata Linguine, the “Impossible” (plant-based) Cheeseburger and Carrot Cake with Toasted Coconut on the menu; Leah Adler would be proud. It’s a fitting testimony to a fearless, multi-talented woman who was ahead of her time.

The recipes below include Leah’s famed chimichangas, printed with permission from the Spielberg family. Guacamole, Blackened Halibut and Carrot Cake are my interpretation of some of the menu items.

The Milky Way, at 9108 Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles (310-859-0004), observes Shabbat. It is closed for dinner on Friday and all day Saturday.

Leah Adler Restaurant , The Milky Way
The exterior of the Milky Way. Credit: Courtesy.

Leah Adler’s Chimichangas (Dairy)

Makes 14 chimichangas; 4 cups of filling at 2 oz. of filling per chimichanga (Printed with permission from the Spielberg family)

Ingredients:

2 cups canned black beans (pulse in a food processor until broken up)

¼ cup onions, diced ¼ x ¼ inch

1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

¾ cup cooked brown or white rice

1 cup roasted and seeded Anaheim chilies, diced ¼ x ¼ inch

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped

1 ½ tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. black pepper

14 each wonton wrappers, 3.5” x 3.5”

Directions:

Caramelize onions in a sauté pan with a small amount of butter and oil.

Mix all ingredients until combined.

Place ¼ cup of mixture into a wonton wrapper, secure the edges with water and fold until tightly sealed.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove until it boils to 325 degrees to 350 degrees (use a food-safe thermometer). Gently place tightly sealed chimichangas in oil and fry until golden brown, turning over once.

Remove from the fryer. Place on a paper towel to absorb some of the excess oil, and sprinkle with additional kosher salt.

Serve chimichangas with a dollop of guacamole, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, olives and additional cilantro on top.

Avocado in Bowl
Avocado. Credit: Kjokkenutstyr/Pixabay.

Quick, Easy Guacamole (Pareve)

Makes 2 cups

Cook’s Tips:

*To make ahead, drizzle guacamole lightly with freshly squeezed lemon juice or lime juice and cover with plastic wrap. Make sure to press the wrap down with your fingers to prevent air from getting into the mixture and causing the surface to brown.

*May add chopped tomato, finely minced chilis or bottled salsa.

*To cut avocados: Run a knife around the outside of the avocado horizontally and carefully twist it in half. Discard the pit and remove the flesh with a spoon or finger.

Ingredients:

3 ripe avocados, peeled and pit removed

juice of 1 large or 2 small limes

½ to 1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic

pinch kosher salt (and pepper) or to taste

Directions:

Place avocado flesh in a medium bowl. Add the lime juice, ½ teaspoon of minced garlic, and salt (and pepper, if using).

Mash gently with a fork to a coarse consistency. Add a little more garlic (up to another ½ teaspoon, if needed) and salt to taste.

Best served immediately.

Fresh Halibut Filet
Halibut. Credit: Eskymaks/Shutterstock.

Blackened Halibut With Avocado (Pareve)

Serves 4

Cook’s Tips:

*May substitute salmon or cod.

*Halibut is a white fish, fresh-tasting with a dense, firm texture. Most halibut now comes from the Pacific.

*Substitute ¼ cup of Mediterranean spice mix for garlic, oregano and thyme.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons powdered garlic

1 tablespoon sumac

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 halibut fillets (4 oz. to 6 oz. each)

4 tortillas, warmed

sliced avocado and arugula salad to plate

Directions:

In a large shallow dish combine the seven spice ingredients. Add the fillets, tossing to coat all sides. Pat spice mixture lightly to press into fillets.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the fillets in one layer. May need to cook in two batches. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until the coating is charred and the fish is opaque and flakes easily. Check in the thickest part with a sharp pointed knife, or when inserted, a meat thermometer should register 145 degrees.

To serve: Place each fillet on a warm tortilla. Top with half a sliced avocado and arugula salad on the side.

Carrots
Carrots. Credit: HilaryFran/Pixabay.

Carrot Cake With Toasted Coconut (Dairy)

Serves 10-12

Cook’s Tips:

*May use yellow or white cake mix for carrot-cake mix.

*Save time. Buy store-bought grated carrots.

Ingredients:

1 box carrot-cake mix (about 15.25 oz.)

2 cups grated carrots

½ cup water

3 large eggs

½ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup raisins or dried cranberries

½ cup canned crushed pineapple, undrained

1½ teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons coffee granules

½ cup coarsely chopped nuts

orange frosting and coconut (recipe and ingredients below)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with nonstick baking spray. Set aside.

In a large bowl, place cake mix, carrots, water, eggs and vegetable oil. Beat until the batter is smooth. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon to mix well. Divide the batter equally between the two cake pans.

Bake in a preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. After 35 minutes, insert a toothpick in the center of each cake. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done. Let cool for 10 minutes in pan before inverting onto a wire tray.

Cool completely before frosting.

Orange Frosting: Beat together 1 (8 oz.) package of softened cream cheese and 1 stick (½ cup) of softened butter until smooth. Gradually add 1 box (16 oz.) of confectioners’ sugar, beating well after each addition. Add ¾ teaspoon of orange extract (can use vanilla instead, if that is handy). Beat well until the frosting is smooth and fluffy.

Spread about a ½ cup of frosting between cake layers. Spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle with toasted coconut.* Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

*To toast coconut: Spread a ½ cup of unsweetened coconut on a small baking sheet. Place under broiler until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Watch carefully; coconut scorches quickly. Use as needed.

Ethel G. Hofman is a widely syndicated American Jewish food and travel columnist, author and culinary consultant.

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