Esquire magazine—which I last bought when I was 24 because it was a manly thing to do or something (this, however, and this, is worth your time)—has released its annual list of the best new restaurants in the U.S. Notably, of the fourteen selected food joints, four of them are located in New York and three in Chicago. But “the restaurant of the year” it turns out, which offers a modern take on Israeli cuisine, is located in New Orleans, Louisiana aka The Big Easy.
Shaya was chosen as the top pick by Josh Ozersky, Esquire‘s former restaurant editor who died in May. Writer Tom Junod recalls Ozersky in an essay in which he worried—not “for the obvious reason, which is that I couldn’t eat like Josh. No one could eat like Josh—that Shaya would not “portend an evening of extravagance:”
Now, I love Israeli food, love Jerusalem: A Cookbook, love the homey exoticism, the fusion forged in the crucible of an eternally contested crossroads. I just didn’t know if I would love Israeli food in New Orleans. Friends who live there said that Shaya had the best pita bread, hummus, and tabbouleh they had ever tasted. But who goes to New Orleans for pita bread, hummus, and tabbouleh? It’s like going to a bordello for Bible instruction.
Junod’s review and experience at Shaya is worth reading, if only whet your appetite. In my opinion, Israeli (and largely Mediterranean) food is tops anywhere (Chinese a close second; Nathan’s fries a close third), and I don’t need any goading to stuff my gut full of it. If you hold any doubt, begin by looking at this picture, or by reading the words “Louisiana Shrimp Shakshouka,” which you’d just have to order on a visit to Shaya just because.
Shaya’s chef is Alon Shaya, who provides Junod with a “ready explanation for how food born in the desert found its way to a city born in a swamp:”
He was born in Israel, and when he moved to Philadelphia at the age of four, the food prepared by his mother and grandmother provided him with a connection to a past he barely had a chance to remember. He eventually came to New Orleans to work at Besh Steak, and when Katrina flooded the city he began cooking Louisiana staples for hospital and relief workers. Six years later, he traveled with his girlfriend and Besh to Israel, where he cooked “kosher Louisiana food”—duck jambalaya—for Israeli soldiers and also asked his girlfriend to marry him. They came home with Shaya already in mind, their inevitable offspring.
Now my reluctant attendance at New Orleans-based bachelor parties will have a silver lining: Israeli food in the deep south.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.