The name James Beard is a huge deal when it comes to US restaurants. Michelin stars are occasionally bestowed, but they’re few and far between and invariably at expensive joints with tasting menus. James Beard was an American author, columnist and TV personality who mentored generations of chefs and awards in his memory have become a critical barometer. When Julia Child says “Through the years he gradually became not only the leading culinary figure in the country but ‘The Dean of American Cuisine” then you know you’ve done something seriously right.
All of which is by way of intro to the top restaurant in all of the U.S. – according to the James Beard Awards. Shaya is a pretty humble looking place. Situated on the stylish but not showy end of New Orleans’ Magazine Street, the simple white building reveals a compact long dining room. Unsurprisingly for an Israeli chef, the eponymous Alon Shaya, blue and white are the main colour palate. One wall is an elegant blue wallpaper surrounding the bar, the other is exposed white brick leading up to the heart of the action, namely the wood burning oven where the legendary pita breads are made.
Families and solo diners, couples and business folks alike sit alongside one another. There’s no dress code with most in shorts, adding to the laid back feel of the place. It is a million miles from fine dining, stuffy service or outrageous bills. And therein lies most of the secret of its success.
The menu is truly a joy to behold, just one page where everything screams to be ordered. It’s laid out under ‘small plates, ‘soup and salad’, ‘for the table’, ‘hummus’ and ‘sandwiches’. Not a sous vide or Rotovap in sight, just the beast of an oven above, making legendary bread. In common with his fellow Israeli chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Itamar Sulovich, Shaya has tapped the rich vein of simple but vibrant cooking from The Levant and turned it into something very special.
A solo lunch couldn’t come close to doing it justice – that will have to come another time. But three plates still bought unadulterated flavour, freshness and impeccable ingredients in perfect harmony.
Lutenitsa is a Bulgarian puree of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato, a technicolor explosion of umami that also happens to be insanely good for you, as is often the case of cuisine from the Middle East and Balkans.
Of course a platform is needed for it and the pita could win a James Beard award in its own right. Bread in the US is too often a doughy abomination but at Shaya it’s an ethereally light pillow of joy. It’s also better than any bread I can recall eating in Israel, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere.
The lutenitsa is part of an insanely-good deal where you get three bowls for US$15 – ie HK$120. Imagine that in the Fragrant Harbour? So alongside comes a baba ganoush. It just has to. The aubos have been held to flame to impart that full char that tastes of smoke even through the smoothness. It’s bloody good.
The third Musketeer is hummus with lamb ragu and crispy chickpeas. Wow. If it looks the same consistency as Alain Ducasse’s legendary purée potato, it’s because it’s also velvety in texture, while that lamb ragu is the perfect slow cooked counterpoint to chickpeas and love.
Flying solo means only one more dish can be ordered, but again, what a dish. Perfectly-chargilled lamb kebabs with tomatoes, pine nuts, tahini and cilantro. I haven’t seen a more enticing plate of food in 2016, yet again it is simplicity itself.
I would have truly, madly, deeply loved to have tried their cauliflower with caramelized onions, Jerusalem mixed grill including veal sweetbreads and chicken hearts, and of course their falafel sandwich.
Maybe lunch at Shaya is especially memorable as a counterpoint to voluminous and heavy American food, but that does a great disservice to the sensational restaurant scene in New Orleans – more of which is to come in the weeks ahead. But ultimately Shaya is a masterclass in not over-complicating, letting ingredients do the hard work and celebrating the cuisine that is testament to a ‘mosaic of many origins’ as the menu puts it. For that alone, it’s worth an award in my book too.