If the quick and wide-reaching success of Jerusalem, the book by British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, is any indication, modern Israeli cuisine is having a moment.
New Orleans is no stranger to Middle Eastern cuisine, but Israeli cooking has until now held a quiet place at the table. All that has changed with the opening of Alon Shaya's namesake restaurant, whose Uptown tables and barstools have been packed since it opened in February.
Walking through the doors feels like taking a step into a bustling Tel Aviv brasserie: a stylish, sophisticated crowd holds court, and the noise level is high. Brick walls are painted white and adorned with the whimsical placement of bouquets of mismatched cacti and flowers in a collection of bric-a-brac vases and jars.
In the corner of the restaurant, adjacent to floor-to-ceiling glass doors offering views of the spacious courtyard, lies the restaurant's piece de resistance: a wood-burning oven that churns out warm, fluffy pita bread. The pillowy pockets serve as vessels for the majority of the menu's small plates and shared items.
With the bread come tiny dishes of olive oil laced with za'atar, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice blend of dried herbs, ground sumac and toasted sesame seeds.
Shaya's interpretation of modern Israeli food incorporates a wide variety of cuisines that have influenced and left impressions on the country since its inception in 1948. Lutenitsa, a thick red paste made from roasted peppers, eggplant, garlic and tomatoes, pays homage to the chef's Bulgarian born grandmother.
Crispy, fried Yemenite flatbread accompanies kibbeh nayah, a Lebanese-inspired dish of minced beef and lamb tartare mixed with bulgur and finely chopped walnuts. The bulgur and walnuts add texture and heft while notes of cinnamon and citrus add warmth and a touch of acidity.
Chermoula, a spice paste common in North African dishes, makes up the backbone of a vinaigrette served with a medley of heirloom baby carrots, onions and mint.
While the menu has several substantive, larger plates, the wide selection of small plates, shared dips and vegetable dishes steal the show here, while also paying tribute to the Middle Eastern tradition of communal dining.
Labneh, a thick-strained yogurt, is topped with thin slices of radish and Anaheim peppers, and the creamy, cool dish is a nice accompaniment to some of the spicier items.
A fairly straightforward baba ghanoush features smoky roasted eggplant dip topped with green garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Tzatziki strays from tradition and takes a slight Southern turn with the addition of black-eyed peas and diced red onions. The result is oilier and heavier than most and feels at odds with the rest of the selection.
Toasted slices of rye bread come topped with heaps of creamy avocado, smoked whitefish, pink peppercorns and micro greens — a light dish that, when paired with a small salad, could easily serve as a stand-alone meal at lunchtime.
Rich, creamy hummus dishes appear in several versions, the most decadent of which comes topped with chunks of tender lamb ragu sprinkled with spring peas and pine nuts.
Of the few larger plates on the menu, an excellent chicken paprikash embodies the dish's Hungarian roots. The outside layer of perfectly crisped skin gives way to tender, juicy meat that slips effortlessly from the bone into a thick, red Hungarian curry surrounding soft dumplings and wilted rapini.
Shaya, who last month snagged the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, was born in Israel and emigrated to Philadelphia before making his way to New Orleans, where he quickly became one of the best-known chefs working with the John Besh restaurant group. Shaya also co-owns Domenica and its Magazine Street spinoff, Pizza Domenica.
With the opening of his eponymous restaurant, the dishes of his homeland already have found an enthusiastic New Orleans audience.