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The Middle Easy

Classic Israeli dishes get a Gulf Coast makeover at Shaya

Author Rohan Kamicheril Photography Rush Jagoe

tastemakers1NEW ORLEANS – Move over, gumbo: Hummus and pita may soon take their place at the New Orleans table. Shaya, a new Israeli restaurant, opened this February in the city’s quaint Garden District and is making waves with its wild mashups of Mediterranean flavors and Gulf Coast ingredients. The fusion, it turns out, isn’t as odd as it might at first sound. Remember, both places are very much defined by their histories as melting pots—with grab-bag cuisines to prove it. 

“Israeli food is like American food, in a way,” says Alon Shaya, who won the 2015 James Beard Award for best chef in the South and co-owns the restaurant with Octavio Mantilla and local culinary legend John Besh. “It’s such an intense collection of cultures and cuisines.” Start with a platter of the signature salatim, mezze-like small plates served with freshly baked pita. Inflated from the heat of the wood-burning oven, the bread is made with a sourdough starter Shaya developed at his pizzeria, Domenica, a few blocks away. “It’s a New Orleans native,” he jokes. 

In truth, the inspiration for the dishes comes, much like Israel’s multicultural founders, from farther afield: from Bulgaria, a puree of roasted pepper, eggplant, tomato and garlic called lutenitsa, made using Shaya’s grandmother’s recipe; from Yemen, a flatbread served with a beef-and-lamb tartare called kibbeh nayah, made here with walnuts, bulgur and jalapeño; from Greece and Turkey, ikra, a creamy spread made with locally sourced paddlefish roe, shallots and basil that’s both saline and rich.

The menu is traditional in many ways, but with nods to the bounty of local produce and the Gulf. “A lot of Israeli dishes use ingredients that we get here: cabbage, eggplant, tomatoes, rice,” says Shaya. But he’s also open to regional riffing: “We don’t have lentils, so we use black-eyed peas and soybeans.” 

Perhaps the most New Orleans part of Shaya is its inviting atmosphere. Chef Shaya can often be found giving a patron a welcome hug, carrying out a plate of pita or bowing low to say goodbye to a young guest. The menu may be new and inventive, but the spirit is vintage NOLA. It’ll have you asking how to say “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll”) in Hebrew.

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