ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Now here’s something we didn’t see coming. Restaurants serving the Turkish-inspired food if the Middle East have been rife around New Orleans for some twenty-five years. Their menus are nearly interchangeable. Because most of them are managed by Muslims, they don’t sell alcohol but do allow customers to bring their own wines, beers, or other alcohols, with no corkage fees–a policy that attracts many diners. Despite the unusual dish names and presentations, developing a taste for it comes easily. The prices, even in the presence of good ingredients, are almost too low. Everything is casual, with not much boasting on the menus.
And then, late in 2015–but soon enough to be called the best new restaurant of the year–Shaya opened with a very different approach to the cuisine. It shortly became one of the most popular restaurants in town. It’s still is hard to get a reservation there. The reason: it performed a total reworking of the culinary style of the Levant, with the further claim that the style is Israeli. That alone caught a lot of people’s attention.
WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Not a dish on Shaya’s menu will remind you of a Lebanese or Syrian or Egyptian dish you’ve had elsewhere. Shaya has rewritten the book. Either that or the rumors I’ve heard about a great restaurant scene in Tel Aviv are true. (I get this from both a niece and a travel writer I know who spend a lot of time in Israel.)
Test case: Do you love hummus? Sure, everybody does. But you have not had hummus they way they do it at Shaya, where hummus washes over ingredients you’ve never seen it paired with. The entire menu works that way, except perhaps for the parts where there is nothing familiar at all. When you order shakshousha, for example, you get a dish of poached eggs with a thick sauce of tomatoes, chile peppers, onions, cheese, jerusalem artichokes (which aren’t really artichokes!) and a list of seasonings. Where have you had this before? In Jerusalem, yes. Or New York or L.A. But it’s new to me and probably you.
Shaya also dares to operate with eccentric menu categories. There are appetizers designed to either serve two people, or to serve as an entree for one. Then there are apps for one, and entrees for more than one. It all works, especially if you come with an emphatic hunger.
Even if you’re not a dessert lover, try one here. They are beautiful, fresh, unique and scrumptious.
The building was renovated by the same folks who put the now-extinct Le Foret on the map. After changing hands (Chef Dominique Macquet came and went) and another renovation, Chefs John Besh and Alon Shaya (who was born in Israel) expanded the partnership they forged at Domenica and opened Shaya.
The look of the restaurant makes one feel vaguely like he is in a town on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The tables line up both inside and out, built of light-colored, smooth, angular, clean materials (almost all of them hard, making for a high noise level in the dining room). The bar and dining areas merge seamlessly into one another, as is the current vogue. Tables extend well back into the high-walled courtyard, which could also be called an alley. Upstairs is a larger room serving both a la carte and group customers.
More ruminations appear in our Dining Diary. Click on any of the dates below for those reports, each written a few days after a meal at Shaya.
FULL ONLINE MENU
Starters For The Table
»Pita bread (an offbeat but irresistible version of the familiar flatbread, made by Alon Shaya using his pizza dough from Domenica. You can’t stop eating this.
Baba ganoush (eggplant, green garlic, olive oil)
Israeli salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, za’atar spice)
Labneh (yogurt, wax peppers, radishes)
»Tabbouleh salad (parsley, bulgur wheat, red onion, almonds, lemon)
Pickled ramps (big green onions, feta, olive oil, pecans)
»Lutenitsa (roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic, tomato)
Pickles (cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage)
Ikra (paddlefish caviar, shallots)
Roasted okra, tahini, tomatoes
»Moroccan carrots, Arab marinade, mint
»Hummus tahiti, olive oil, Aleppo pepper
»Curried fried cauliflower, caramelized onions, cilantro
»Lamb ragú, crispy chickpeas
Soft cooked egg, red onion, pickles, harissa hot sauce
Chanterelles, wood roasted corn, sunflower seeds, brown butter
»Avocado toast, smoked whitefish, pink peppercorns, rye bread
»Kibbeh nayah (raw ground beef and lamb, bulgur, walnuts, Yemeni flatbread)
Persian rice, golden crust, mustard greens
Foie gras, rose tahini, carob molasses, challah bread
Falafel, cabbage salad and cucumber tsatziki
»Lamb kebab, tomatoes, pine nuts, tahini, cilantro
Roasted cabbage, muhammara, tahini, hazelnuts
»Crispy halloumi cheese, spring peas, roasted leeks, preserved lemon
Matzo ball soup, slow cooked duck, escarole, tender herbs
»Fattoush salad, vegetables, feta, crispy pita
Grilled chicken, lettuce, harissa olives, citrus, sumac onions
»Roasted chicken, mustard, lemon verbena, crispy rice, wild mushrooms
Wagyu hanger steak, pole beans, charred onions, tomatoes
Amberjack, grape leaves, cucumber taratour, walnuts
»Slow cooked lamb, whipped feta, walnut and pomegranate tabbouleh
»Shakshouka, chermoula, Jerusalem artichokes, spicy chilies, tomato, egg
»Milk and honey (Lebneh cheesecake, mixed nut granola, burnt honey ice cream)
»Malabi (vanilla custard, strawberry, rose, rhubarb
»Pavlova meringue, blueberries and basil
Warm chocolate baba (poppy seeds and halva ice cream)
»Honey cake (peaches, pistachios and sweet cream)
FOR BEST RESULTS
If you want to carry on a conversation, sit near a window, inside or out. Know that the only sign on the building is high and painted in low contrast, making it all but invisible as you pass by. Reward for finding the place: free parking in an adjacent lot, a big help in this restaurant-rich neighborhood.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
I’m no fan of banquette seating, which dominates most dining rooms. Reservations are very hard to get, even well in advance. A better strategy is to show up early for lunch or dinner and star at the hostess until she gives you a break.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Value +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +3
- Local Color +1
- Courtyard or deck dining
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open all afternoon
- Easy, nearby parking
- Reservations recommended