Ask anyone who has dined at Shaya—the newest powerhouse in the burgeoning New Orleans restaurant scene—what menu item they imagine to be the inspiration for Chef Alon Shaya’s culinary journey, and answers will undoubtedly vary. Surely some would say the melt-in-your mouth foie gras or the knock-your-socks-off tender slow-cooked lamb. Some might choose the inventive hummus selections or the best falafel this side of the Atlantic. All are worthy contenders, but none are the correct answer.
Our table was fortunate enough to have the answer revealed to us by Chef Shaya himself: the dish that started it all is lutenitsa. In case you’re not familiar with traditional Bulgarian sauces, lutenista is a spread consisting of roasted pepper, eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic. We had some at the table, and although certainly a flavorful garnish, it was an unassuming dish and not the sort of noteworthy concoction that generates wild foodie fanfare. But lutenitsa offers insight into what makes Shaya tick.
Chef Shaya grew up in Israel and credits his grandmother for instilling his love of food at an early age. Her lutenista, first and foremost, was among her litany of homemade recipes, a tradition the menu at Shaya clearly pays homage to. However, what makes Shaya extraordinary is the application of modern flair and creativity to this tradition. Striking a balance between old and new is no easy task. Far too often, restaurants quickly get labeled as either “classic” or “trendy.” Neither moniker applies to Shaya. Rather, Chef Shaya has created a harmonious balance between the two that manifests itself in the ambiance of the space and, most importantly, in the food.
The details not only matter, they are critical. For instance, the beef and lamb tartare accented with walnuts and jalapeños is the perfect combination of succulence and spice. The aptly titled “Milk and Honey” cheesecake (with mixed nut granola and burnt honey ice cream) oozes dessert deliciousness. In a city where mediocre restaurants fall by the wayside faster than over-eager revelers on Bourbon Street, a strong first impression is essential. Shaya makes such an imprint. In fact, I just heard somebody proudly exclaim that they went to Shaya two weekends in a row. The greatest press review in the world cannot match the compliment of a New Orleanian choosing to make back-to-back visits to the same restaurant. That said, I live in New Orleans, and my next reservation at Shaya has already been booked.