It’s a tossup as to which has received more critical acclaim over the past year: the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton or the justified hubris of hummus, restaurant Shaya. While theatre enthusiasts are pre-paying for full season passes (for 2017) to guarantee tickets to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hip-hop historical drama, foodies near and far are booking reservations months in advance (for dinner on Monday nights) to taste Chef Alon Shaya’s modern interpretations of Israeli cuisine.
Since opening in February of last year, restaurant Shaya has racked up an unprecedented number of best new restaurant awards—the most recent from the James Beard Foundation. Not surprisingly, suspicion constantly follows such accolades. The question is legitimate. Based on sheer numbers alone, how is it possible to determine which one of the nation’s new restaurants rises above all others? And with a menu that features many dishes found at your run of the mill Mediterranean café, what distinguishes Shaya from its competition? In a word: everything.
The foundation is the wood-burning oven that churns out freshly baked pita, an attribute that arguably earns Shaya the title of best bread service in the city. Forget about all your past experiences with pita—everything else is just cardboard compared to these steaming pillows of perfection. Start with a selection of shared appetizers that are anything but ordinary: the Bulgarian roasted red pepper spread lutenitsa, creamy labneh accented with wax peppers, or bracingly spiced Moroccan carrots. A number of the dishes feature a strong acid component, so be careful to balance with one of the trio of hummus dishes (I am partial to the version crowned with succulent beef cheeks).
Small plates include crunchy rye bread smeared with avocado and topped with smoked whitefish and pink peppercorns that pop with each bite. Kibbeh Nayah is a combination of Two Run Farms lamb and beef tartare mixed with bulgur and walnuts and served with Yemenite flatbread so rich that I’m convinced the recipe requires equal parts flour and butter. Lamb kebab sauced with tomato and tahini pairs well with the Persian rice mixed with egg yolks and baked until golden brown.
Avoiding overstuffing oneself before reaching the list of large plates is a feat. Exercising self restraint and opting to share will be rewarded with spare room to sample the short rib tagine served with house made couscous or the slow-cooked lamb shank lacquered in its own delectable juices.
Shaya lives up to all the hype, and then some.
4123 Magazine Street; lunch (daily) 11a–4p, dinner (nightly) 4–10p; shayarestaurant.com