As an Israeli restaurant, the newly-opened Shaya doesn’t have much precedent in New Orleans. But it does have plenty of familiar touchstones.
Meals start with pita bread, hot from the wood-fired oven in the dining room. And the menu offers falafel, lamb kebabs and hummus (in four varieties) before any potentially new vocabulary comes your way (I had to look up lutenitsa, a subtly sweet roasted pepper dip; and ikra, a creamy caviar spread).
On a different level, however, the inspiration for this restaurant should resonate for those who appreciate the diversity and vibrancy of crossroads cuisines.
Shaya’s menu draws on the historic roots of Israeli cooking and the cultural interplay that has rapidly accelerated there since the creation of the modern state. This means staple Middle Eastern flavors alongside influences from the broad Jewish diaspora now brought back to Israel.
“Some of it is Middle Eastern, some of it is Mediterranean, but we have a lot of room to break away from that, too, and give people a window to the culture of Israel and the people eating and cooking its food today,” said Shaya.
This accounts for Shaya’s black bass paprikash, the Hungarian stew served here with tarragon dumplings; chicken schnitzel, one of the sandwiches from the lunch menu; and short rib tagine from North Africa. Many dishes are vegetarian and the menu is composed to encourage shared courses. Prices are mid-range.
Shaya grew up in Philadelphia, though he was born in Tel Aviv and his Israeli family history has long played into his cooking. At Domenica, he served special menus for the Jewish high holidays between the Italian restaurant’s pizzas and salumi plates (none of this was kosher, and neither is Shaya). These holiday menus will now move to the chef’s new Uptown restaurant, beginning with Passover in April.
Shaya said he wants to present classic dishes, not reinterpretations. He explains it in curatorial terms, pulling many different threads together to represent what he sees as the modern cuisine of his homeland.
“This is what I’ve been waiting to cook my whole life,” he said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.