Chef Alon Shaya made his mark in New Orleans by elevating regionally inspired Italian cuisine with Domenica and Pizza Domenica, then again, with Shaya, inspired by the exotic flavors of the Israeli diaspora, Alon’s homeland. His numerous accolades include receiving two James Beard Awards.
Located at the corner of Magazine and Nashville, previously occupied by Kenton’s, Saba, which means grandfather in Hebrew, is filled with a warm, welcoming light pouring in from the wraparound windows. The dining room is divided by a bar stocked with high-end libations, all sorts of house-made tinctures, juices, herbs, teas, and exotic liqueurs flavored with allspice and cardamom. Syrups such as Jallab is made with carob, dates, grape molasses and rose water and is one of the ingredients used to make one of the many well-made, unique cocktails, such as Burnt Offerings. Another highlight, Ein Gedi, made from turmeric pisco, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon, Angostura and frothy egg whites sets the tone of the embarrassment of riches offered at Saba, including Arak service. The carefully curated wine list includes rare selections from the Middle East, one of many well-thought-out details that enhance the overall dining experience at Saba.
Saba’s menu begins with salatim selections of elegant cold dishes such as the lush, unctuous, ikra dip with salmon roe and scallions and a classic version of labneh with pink peppercorns, shallots and mint. More robust items include tabouleh, zucchini baba ganoush, and the intensely flavored lutenitsa made with fire-roasted eggplants, tomato and red pepper. A spiral of a single roasted apple was as beautiful as it was delicious. Even simple presentations, such as red grapes with pickled onions and pine nuts, and/or Bulgarian feta with preserved leeks, impart a sublime sense of deep satisfaction.
Well regarded for its creamy smoothness and incredible flavor, the hummus at Saba did not disappoint. Accoutrements such as charred poblano, lamb tongue and Brussels sprouts are offered to enhance one’s hummus experience, but it was the pairing with locally sourced blue crab that kinda blew my mind. Of course, all of it is exalted by the house-made pita bread which is served warm with a little pool of olive oil scented with the most flavorful Za’atar I’ve ever had.
Some of Saba’s most savory dishes emanate from the wood-grilled shishklik portion of the menu. The charred delicata squash with wonderfully crispy chickpeas, the lamb kebab, and hanger steak with celeriac puree and pomegranate were all solid choices. The octopus as well as the foie gras with date honey and Marcona almonds are among the most exotic items on the menu. The small plates selections feature classics such as dolmades stuffed with ground lamb, matzoh ball soup and falafel. Saba also highlights one of the first dishes Alon Shaya learned how to prepare: shakshouka, a hearty egg dish made with onions, peppers, tomatoes, typically cooked in a cast iron skillet and at Saba garnished with roasted parsnips, and zhoug (made with jalapeño, garlic, cilantro and parsley). This is a meal that Alon used to prepare at home for his mother, then has served as a go-to dish ever since. Family-style presentations include whey-brined harissa roasted chicken served on a bed of bay leaves, Alon’s version of Sephardic fish stew with striped bass, green tahini and chraime, as well as short ribs with the North African spice blend ras el hanout. The side dishes include crispy potatoes, couscous with dried cherries and Persian lime butter, and mujadara, the wildly popular Middle Eastern dish of black lentils with shawarma rice. Saba also offers three types of caviar all served with Zapp’s potato chips: trout, paddlefish and osertra.
Desserts at Saba are not to be overlooked! Warm chocolate babka, and Labneh cheesecake with cardamom meringue and espresso sauce are show-stoppers.
Service as Saba is as smooth as the vibe created by the subtle, often esoteric music selections punctuated by “deep tracks” by local artists featured on their delightful playlist. Our server, Kayla, was unobtrusive but always engaging, kind and helpful. Having read the Pomegranate Hospitality mission statement (and being a service industry veteran myself going on three decades) I was very curious to see how all the high-mindedness played out in real space and time. It was clear that the atmosphere at Saba was indeed different than many other restaurants, if not a wholesale sea change. Everyone seemed to work in harmony and to be in good spirits. There was a calm energy in the dining room and that, above all else, endeared me and gave me hope that the best is yet to come.
The creation of Pomegranate Hospitality and Saba Restaurant cements Alon Shaya’s enduring legacy and sustained contribution to the local culinary scene, placing him in the company of great local restaurant industry shapeshifters such as Susan Spicer, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Donald Link, John Besh, the Brennan family, and John Folse. With Shaya, and now Saba, Alon Shaya has entered the fray of world-class restaurants such as Mashya and Machneyuda in Israel, or Zahav in Philadelphia.
Saba, 5757 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115. (504) 324-7770. Open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner until 10 p.m.