Ash Wednesday at Shaya
I interviewed the Israeli born and American bred chef, Alon Shaya, after only a few months of moving to New Orleans. At the time he was preparing to open his third restaurant in the city (the eponymous, Shaya, serving Israeli cuisine), after Domenica and Pizza Domenica (both of which serve Italian cuisine). It opened on Mardi Gras, of 2015. It took me a year and a day to finally get there.
The eatery was an immediate hit, and it’s no wonder. Shaya told me, when we spoke, that Louisiana, Italy and Israel are the three areas of the world he always thinks about when it comes to food, of how they flow together here, then go away there and come back together – like a river ebbing and flowing through the three cultures and cuisines bringing together his love of food. I asked if Shaya would be his most personal restaurant since it was the food of his childhood – the food he cooked with his Bulgarian grandmother, and a cuisine he’d always held in the back of his mind as wanting to explore. He responded that Domenica was just as personal, and Israeli cuisine was just something he was now ready to explore, another song to sing, as he put it. But I don’t know – as much as I love Domenica, I felt a little extra degree of passion in the vibrant food at Shaya.
I mentioned above that it took me a year and a day to finally get to Shaya, putting us there on Ash Wednesday – a perfect spot for the day, as much of the menu is vegetarian. I dragged my brother, Ric, a lifelong vegetarian along. He’s not much for restaurant dining as the options available to him are generally so limited – and disappointing, but Shaya is heaven for a non-flesh eater. It was just as delightful for us meat eaters, too. Of the many dishes our group of four shared (much of the menu is a collection of small plates to be shared, along with a steady supply of freshly baked Pita from the wood fired oven), only one had meat in it – the Hummus with Lamb Ragú, but every one ate heartily and no one missed the meat.
The hummus is as light and airy as they come. Ric remarked on how surprising it was to distinguish ones’ self with something as ubiquitous as hummus to our server. “It’s because he has a small farmer growing organic garbanzos for him,” I piped in – “and a $10,000 Robot Coupe” our server added.
Whatever the reasons, the hummus is the basis for several of the dishes composed of locally grown and caught, and artisanal products. Among the slightly larger plates offered, were the above mentioned Hummus with Lamb Ragú and Crispy Chickpeas, Hummus with Fried Curried Cauliflower, Hummus with Butternut Squash, Pecans and Black Garlic Butter and Hummus with Soft Cooked Egg, Red Onions and Pickles. Of course, as is a requirement for the best of today’s restaurants, the menu is seasonal, changing several times a year.
I could feel Shaya’s level of excitement rise as he spoke to me about the contemporary food scene in Israel – of the huge melting pot the cuisine reflects, so many diverse cultures of the Jewish diaspora – North African, Turkish, Greek, Polish, Bulgarian, Yemenite, Persian – he rattled them off, and the democratic society Israel has become, of the freedom of expression in the country, of how people have come to make a difference, not from the top down, but a grassroots difference, and how all of this is reflected in the art, music, and the especially for him, the food. Passion, indeed. Yes, you can taste it in the food.
4213 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115