New Orleans is a mecca for world-famous food, where even the gas stations and food trucks serve dynamic, delicious offerings. Though Cajun and Creole cuisine is what put this city on the map, new ethnic restaurants are signaling a global renaissance in the Crescent City. At the front of this competitive pack, exposing residents and tourists alike to new flavor profiles, combining local ingredients with those from a far off place and gourmet takes on authentic dishes, is Shaya.
Shaya (pronounced shy-uh) is modern Israeli cuisine at its finest, started by New Orleans heavyweight Alon Shaya. Alon offers the tastes of his Israeli upbringing with a modern spin, celebrating his birth country’s mosaic-like food and drawing influences from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Turkey and more.
“We work very hard to keep the vision of what we are cooking strong,” says Alon. “It must tell a story, have some soul and also taste good. Using the wonderful resources we have in southern Louisiana, like locally raised chickens and lamb, and a long and subtropical growing season that gives us super cool produce, like okra and satsumas, allows us to cook like we are living in Israel.”
I (more specifically, my stomach) had a fabulous time when I spent an afternoon with friends and family at Shaya. We indulged with every section of the menu. Our lunch began with sipping on house cocktails like The Negev (a tangy concoction made with Middle Eastern staple pomegranate), $10, and stuffing our mouths with the best pita bread I’ve ever had. The only thing that could possibly make the pita better (homemade in Shaya’s wood-burning oven) is the different hummus plates to choose from. We went with curried fried cauliflower and the butternut squash, each $12. I am not exaggerating at all when I say there were people at our table scraping the last microscopic drops of hummus off the plate with any utensil I … er, they could find.
Seeing that hummus is a Middle Eastern staple and was voted 2015’s Dish of the Year by Bon Appetit, it’s a given that Shaya’s hummus far exceeds expectations.
“Hummus … is healthy, goes with just about anything you want to dip into it (think scallops or french fries) and is easy to make,” says Alon. “At Shaya, we take the time to remove the skins from the beans, in turn making it very smooth.”
After we dunked our pita in as much hummus as we could possibly gather, it was on to the next round of food. Shaya has a communal feeling, and the biggest part of the menu is the small, shared plates (similar to tapas) — you can get three for $15 or five or $23. We went with baba ganoush (a creamy eggplant dish similar to hummus in consistency), Israeli salad (tangy tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and za’tar), red beets (I am a HUGE beet person, so that one was my request), wood-roasted Brussels sprouts (deliciously cooked with red onion and tahini) and ikra (paddlefish caviar spread with shallots). Each dish was better than the last, especially slathered on top of soft, warm pita bread.
We ignored our very full bellies and kept ordering. Next up were the “small plates,” although these dishes were pretty large. We went with a classic falafel (served in a pita with cabbage salad and cucumber tzatziki), $12; avocado toast (slabs of rye bread slathered in creamy avocado, topped with smoked whitefish and pink peppercorns), $14; and Shakshouka, $16. I’ve grown up on Middle Eastern food, so I know what I do and don’t like — Shakshouka is one of those I usually skip because of the dish’s heat. However, if you like spice and an acidic creaminess to your meal, take a scoop of this traditional dish featuring tomatoes, potatoes and a soft egg on top.
By the way, this glorious feast doesn’t even scratch the surface of what else is on the Shaya menu (I can’t wait to try the chicken schnitzel or a massive bowl of matzoh ball soup the next time I’m in town).
Alon took New Orleans by storm when he first began training with Chef John Besh, eventually leading to a partnership with the Besh Restaurant Group to open the hugely popular Italian restaurant, Domenica. The establishment, along with its casual spin-off, Pizza Domenica, dominated the food scene and made Alon a household name in this foodie paradise. And then Shaya came into the picture last year.
The restaurant was declared Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire (that’s right, I said America) and 2015 Restaurant of the Year from The Daily Meal. Alon himself won the 2015 James Beard Best Chef of the South Award and the list goes on and on (seriously, just Google “Alon Shaya,” and one award after another pops up). Because of this amazing press and, of course, the delicious food to back up their reputation, it can be tough to get a table at Shaya. Plan ahead and make sure you make a reservation at this Uptown hot spot as soon as you can.
Once you do get a table at Shaya and devour some of the best food you’ve ever had, whether you’ve tried Israeli food before or are a newbie to the cuisine, Alon hopes you have a “feeling of comfort from the food and service — hopefully discovering something [you’ve] never had before and end up falling in love with it.”
Shaya is located at 4213 Magazine St. in New Orleans. You can make a reservation by calling (504) 891-4213 or by visiting shayarestaurant.com. The restaurant is open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.