By ALAN SMASON
With an almost reverential nod to the Israeli home of his birth, award-winning Chef Alon Shaya – in partnership with John Besh – has opened his shiny new Shaya Restaurant, the first-ever Israeli restaurant located in New Orleans.
Nestled in comfortable and bright quarters at 4213 Magazine Street, Shaya has brought about a brilliant concept of a menu with emphasis on the Israeli cuisine he once cooked with his grandmother while growing up in Philadelphia. Shaya emigrated to the United States when he was just a four-year-old, having been born and lived in the small Israeli town of Batyam, located south of Jaffa.
The influence of other countries from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece is also evident in the menu items, which Shaya selected in the hope of marrying to fresh New Orleans and other locally raised food items.
“Shaya is something I’ve been dreaming of a long time,” says the friendly chef. “Through the success of Domenica (Roosevelt Hotel) and Pizza Domenica, it’s really allowed me to create this restaurant.” With the encouragement and support of Besh and his other partner Octavio Mantilla, Shaya seized the moment and started planning for the opening of the restaurant that now bears his name, only 10 months since the opening of Pizza Domenica. “They’re not only my partners, but my friends and mentors – people I’ve been working with for the last 11 years.”
Shaya also credits the fantastically dedicated and talented team he has built at his previous restaurants as making this new dream a reality. He feels that they are so motivated to do more than they are that it’s necessary to keep them motivated. “If we don’t give them an opportunity to challenge them, they’re going to move on,” he jokes.
He notes that key members of his staff have taken ownership of the restaurant in a figurative sense, assisting him in the hiring and firing of employees and working side by side in determining menus. As an example, he notes that Shannon White, who is his director of operations started out as a server at Domenica five years ago.
“It’s like this moving locomotive,” he suggests. “At some point it’s just unstoppable when we have all these people surging forward.” Shaya sees his role now as less the hands-on chef and more of a manipulator, allowing staff members to express themselves.
Curtis Herring Interior Designers were called in by Shaya to reshape the existing facility into his concept of a beautiful neighborhood restaurant. He wanted to link the interior somehow to Israel and thought back to the times when he had visited Jaffa, the ancient city near where he was born.
One of the architectural features there are doors and shutters that are colored bright blue. “Those blue shutters and doors really always stuck with me,” Shaya explains. “I wanted to showcase that blue art work with me. A blue gate on the wall was what started in the expansive patio located in the rear of the restaurant. The blue moved forward to the oven, which has specially colored blue tiles $10.and continued into the bar and main dining room area.
But no matter how beautiful the surroundings, the menu items are what will get customers inside Shaya and keep them coming back. The oven, which can reach 800 degrees is constantly baking pita that come out crunchy on the outside with a soft center.
There’s tahini with extra virgin oil and Aleppo pepper and three different types of hummus, all small plate meals in themselves between $6.00 and $10.00. The curried fried cauliflower variety with caramelized onions has just a touch of cilantro and mint, while another offers eggplant with oven roasted tomatoes and za’atar, a combination of Middle Eastern spices.
Other small plates include grapes leaves with rice, brisket and shitake mushrooms ($8.00 per order); lamb kebabs ($12.00) and shakshouska with spicky chilies, tomato and eggs.($10.00)
Table portions of baba ganoush, tabouleh and labneh, a yogurt-derived cheese from Progress Farms are available for sharing. Among the many other items to be shared is a local Louisiana paddlefish caviar spread with shallots Shaya calls ikra. There are spicy pickled vegetables of red peppers pickled with Aleppo pepper, cauliflower florets pickled in tumeric and cucumbers made with Serrano chilies that will bite back in a delicious manner. Heirloom carrots from Cobey Rise Farms in Husser, Louisiana are prepared with chermoula vinaigrette and mint.
In addition to an Israeli salad with Cajun Grower Farm cherry tomatoes, there are roasted beets served with yogurt, dill and pepper as well as lutenitsa, a Bulgarian puree of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato. All of these table portions can be purchased for $9.00 for three items, $15.00 for five or all nine for $21.00.
Large plates start at $18.00 with stuffed eggplant and go as as high as $28.00 for slow cooked lamb with whipped feta, walnut and pomegranate tabouleh. Sandwich prices served with house made fried or cabbage and herb salad run from $9.00 (falaflel) to $12.00 (chicken schniztel).
Desserts include labneh cheesecake mixed with granola and burnt honey ice cream, pistachio bourekas and warm chocolate babka and ice cream (each for $9.00). Coffee, cappuccino, espresso and Moroccan mint tea are also available.
Shaya Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner at 4213 Magazine Street. Hours are Sunday-Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 10:-00 p.m. Friday hours are 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. Limited off-street parking is available on the side and in the rear of the restaurant. For more information or reservations, call 504-891-4213.