New Orleans, 2015. Where and why does one even begin to review a restaurant in this city? Especially from one (me) who cooked here from 1981 to 1984 and who now, anyway after years of love-hate with the city, has little negative to say about it. Those tumultuous years have melted into the youthful and hungover gazes of the next generation enjoying their time here. You could say my memories have a polished glow now and I enjoy their effervescence as I walk down the crumbled streets amongst century-plus old buildings, following the scent of gardenia and jasmine on a warm spring day.
Oh yeah, Shaya Restaurant. So I have a tendency in this town to search out the next crawfish boil or bowl of spicy gumbo, but accompanied by the Jr. Food Bitch, there is more in store for me as on her wish list is the more modern and edgy New Orleans fare. I’d say, on this trip, I’m the Jr. Food Bitch.
My daughter and I are together for her graduation this weekend, and ripe for culinary exploration. She selects Shaya Restaurant on Magazine Street, a place on her want-to-check-out list and we go for a late lunch the day I arrive. What is it? I ask. Israeli cuisine. Huh? It’s like Mediterranean food. Sweet. I fully appreciate going out to eat stuff I don’t make at home.
The small dining room is modern and airy with tans and blues, comfortable like we’ve walked in to a spa and Daughter and I sit across from each other at a two-top, feeling short in the low-rise padded chairs. I order a Jack the Sipper beer ––I’m always up for a good pun –– and instantly I know I won’t be whining about inadequate service. From the greeter/hostess to the server: smiling and pleasant youth who exude care and professionalism. I love it, feed me anything when you’re that nice.
For years when I dined in the old style, fill your belly with an entrée, I’d feel a certain anxiety trying to select one thing from the menu. Never able to pack away an appetizer and an entrée, and pretty much a grazer from working in kitchens, going out to eat left me with a sense of loss, that I was missing something by not being able to sample more than one item from a menu. The current popularity of “small plates,” fortunately has cured this social ailment and Shaya is my ultimate savior.
The delectably small menu beckons us from its first heading: For the Table (3 items for $12) and we order baba ganoush, tabouleh and picked vegetables and with these treats arrives a plate with a large fire-roasted pita with herbed olive oil for dipping. Yes! It’s a lemony, garlicky, crunchy, healthy and colorful smorgasbord of culinary fun! Our two small plates arrive, because Daughter has instructed , “bring it all on!” –– avocado toast, herbed fried potatoes with garlic sauce, then her a Jerusalem Mixed Grill: a pita sandwich with sweetbreads, chicken livers and grilled scallions (how and when did she get so adventuresome?)
Some people when they eat, segregate their food on their plate into silly little piles, yes, you guessed it, I’m one who mixes tastes and textures in each bite (it does all get to the same place, right?) At Shaya, each dish on our table stood out beautifully on its own in color, texture, flavor. But when pairing a bite of sweetbread or potato with the pita/olive oil, a crunch of pickled vegetable, the smooth garlicky milkiness of eggplant in the baba ganoush, we were transported to a serene Shangri-La where food is worshipful.
Then Daughter paid the bill. Life doesn’t get much better!