The build-out happened fast, transforming the former Kenton’s into chef Alon Shaya’s new restaurant Saba in just a few weeks. What’s built in, however, has been much longer in the making.
Saba officially opened May 4, at the corner of Magazine Street and Nashville Avenue. It is a modern Israeli eatery with flavors of the sort that won the chef wide acclaim at the nearby restaurant he once ran and still bears his name, Shaya.
“We’re still cooking Israeli food here, but this is going to be better and for a lot of reasons,” Shaya said of Saba, named for the Hebrew word for grandfather. “Our focus has shifted to things I feel are more important.”
That’s why, long before the first pita came out of Saba’s wood-burning oven, the chef and his leadership team dug into questions of culture and accountability.
They asked what they would look for in staff, what they would pledge to them and how they wanted the restaurant to feel to everyone who walked in, whether they were coming for dinner or for a shift.
“It’s all centered on how we’re going to live up to these promises we’re making, the expectations our people bring here and what we expect of them,” Shaya said.
Their answers have been worked into the plan for Saba in different ways, some operational, some philosophical. As the new restaurant gets rolling, they will be put to the test.
For instance, Saba is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, in a bid to improve the work/life balance of its staff. In the afternoons, between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., the restaurant will have only limited bar service. That builds in time for “family meal,” when the staff eats together, and for a slate of educational and enrichment programs, aimed both at showing paths forward in the business and building connections between co-workers.
“We started with the people and the environment,” said Cara Peterson, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. “We started here by talking about ideas we’d seen and things we wanted to see happen. We thought about ways to bring more humanity into the business. It’s finding ways for people to know who they’re working next to, what they’re like, who they really are.”
Shaya himself acknowledges this is a different approach from the one he embraced earlier in his own career.
“In the past, I’ve been guilty of focusing too much on the food and beverage and not putting as much into the culture,” he said. “I see it as a blessing that we have this opportunity to start from scratch.”
Familiar flavors, new focus
Saba’s purposeful approach to restaurant culture comes at a time when the industry's norms and assumptions are up for new scrutiny. The #MeToo movement has brought issues of respect, equity and opportunity in the field to the front burner. The restaurant also counts as a new beginning for a chef who was close to one of the flash points of that movement.
Saba is the first restaurant from Pomegranate Hospitality, a company Shaya formed last fall. Previously, he was a star chef and partner with the Besh Restaurant Group, now called BRG Hospitality, where he ran Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya restaurant.
In October, his former boss, celebrity chef John Besh, was accused of sexual misconduct in a newspaper story that also alleged that sexual harassment was commonplace at his company. Besh stepped down from his leadership role at BRG Hospitality, which appointed a new CEO, longtime manager Shannon White, who pledged reforms.
Shaya was fired from Besh’s company shortly before that story was published. A subsequent court case over the restaurant name Shaya documented a long unraveling of the two chefs’ once-fruitful partnership, which had netted Shaya and Besh’s company multiple James Beard awards. That dispute was settled out of court in April, formally cutting ties between them and leaving BRG Hospitality with the restaurant name Shaya.
Saba and Shaya are now competitors serving highly similar food about a mile apart on the same street. In fact, anyone familiar with the cooking at Shaya Restaurant will recognize the approach at Saba.
The menu begins with salatim, various small salads and dips ordered three or five at a time, like Iraqi eggplant salad, pickled vegetables or labneh. Hummus, in five varieties, constitutes its own corner of the menu. There’s a section for caviar and another for grilled, skewered items called shashlik (think shishkabob), done here with lamb, octopus, foie gras or eggplant.
There are small plates and large-format, family-style dishes, like lamb shank and whole fish. Brunch, which will begin shortly after the opening, will bring a number of shared platters, Israeli-style breakfast dishes and also Jewish deli standards, with an emphasis on bagels and cured fish.
A team, a test
Pomegranate Hospitality managers, however, say they’re looking to make a mark beyond the plate.
“Because we’re new, we get to lay the ground work and build from there,” said Suzi Darre, the company’s director of people and culture. “Our goal as a company is to take care of our employees, and we think that will translate to the service that people get, the way they feel when they come here.”
While Saba is the first restaurant for Pomegranate Hospitality, the company also has a second well underway in Denver. Safta (Hebrew for grandmother) is scheduled to open in July. Also serving modern Israeli cuisine, it shares Saba’s philosophical underpinnings too. Managers for Safta will cross-train at Saba.
“When you’re at any of our restaurants, we want you to know you’re at a Pomegranate Hospitality restaurant,” Darre said.
The leaders behind these restaurants have experience together with Shaya. Zach Engel, the company’s culinary director, was chef de cuisine at Shaya restaurant until last fall. Operations director Sean Courtney similarly moved over from Shaya restaurant, and Peterson was that restaurant’s executive sous chef before joining Pomegranate Hospitality.
While they’ve seen how popular modern Israeli cooking proved to be the first time around, they know Saba’s emphasis on restaurant culture will be a new test. That’s also a motivation.
“I feel we’re presenting something new, taking a different approach, and that’s exciting,” said Jessica Retif, Saba’s general manager. “One of our goals is to be transparent, to have people see just what we’re doing and see how it’s working.”
5757 Magazine St., (504) 324-7770
Lunch and dinner Wed.-Sun., weekend brunch to come
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