Smoke and Thyme in New Orleans: Shaya

Uptown, on the west side of the city (“Up” being a river direction in New Orleans), is host to enough excellent restaurants to overflow the page of a moleskine notebook devoted to listing them. And if you go asking every waiter, barfly and streetcar-rider the best place to eat in town, one of the names you will hear over and over again is Shaya.

Nominally, Shaya is an Israeli restaurant, but the menu features dishes that make reference to origins in Morocco and Bulgaria and all points in between – a nine-hour wide clock sweep around the Mediterranean for influences.

Out back at Shaya is a relaxed and unfussy version of a Levantine courtyard garden.

Shaya’s green-scaled, fire-breathing, wood-burning steel-and-ceramic beast sits right in the dining room and turns out the best pita bread I’ve ever tasted. They’re not stingy with it either.

Here it is: a half-inch thick pillowy soft pita bread that you can watch cook in the wood-burning oven. Olive oil and Za’atar are on the side.

The drinks at Shaya all have great names. This one is called a Dillinger Escape Plan. Gin, Kümmel liqueur, dill, celery bitters, egg white and extra virgin olive oil. The bartender told me that the genesis of this cocktail was as part of a series of drinks where the ingredients in each drink all fell within a theme. In this case, the theme was “vegetal”

I have to order any cocktail that has more than three things I’ve never drunk before. Diplomatico rum, Barolo Chinato, rose tahini, eggplant caramel & charred lemon, AKA a “Resting at Noon”.

The main dining room at Shaya has some of the worst light for photos I’ve ever battled with. (maybe I’m throwing shade, but they started it)

I  ordered the trio of Israeli Salatim – Ikra, baba ganoush and charred Brussels sprouts.

Shaya’s Baba Ganoush was really good, but mine is still my favourite.

Ikra – whipped cream cheese with paddlefish caviar and red shallots.

Wood-roasted Brussels with black harissa tahini and pickled shallots. I don’t know if Brussels are local to New Orleans, or to Israel (I suspect neither) but I’m not quibbling with anything that works as well as this. Black harissa tahini was not as much of a revelation as I had hoped for, but with so many Middle-Eastern restaurants that only serve their greatest hits (and they are some great hits), I really respect Shaya for pushing the boat out a bit more. Which brings me to…

 Foie Gras on toasted challah bread with rose tahini and carob molasses. This was actually recommended to me as dessert, and that was a great call. Get it with a glass of Don Fa – a fortified wine with a maceration of black cherry leaves.

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