New Orleans: A city of supernatural cinema and legendary tales of vampires and witches, with drunken streets of jazz and debauchery. A place that has been on my travel bucket list, I finally had the pleasure of being submerged in its culture a few weeks ago.
The best restaurant we went to while we were there was a highly acclaimed Israeli restaurant. Being from metro Detroit, my husband and I are very familiar with Mediterranean, middle-eastern cuisine, and Jewish Deli’s. We never thought there was such a perfect combination of everything we loved. After days of Creole/Cajun seafood, this place offered a phenomenally executed contrast in flavors….and probably the only vegetables we saw all week.
Right off the bat, I was a little turned off by the menu. Nothing looked THAT good.
I’m not a huge fan of hummus, and I’ve eaten enough shakshouka in the past year to ward off any future cravings. And Matzo [matza/matzah] ball soup? I’ve had my fair share of Jewish mothers making me matzo ball soup, along with having it at deli’s here and in New York….it has never really impressed me or ranked in my top soups, until now.
Because the menu seemed so underwhelming, we asked for some recommendations. The waiter suggested the mushroom hummus and the pumpernickel rye with whitefish.
Blegh. That’s the best you could recommend? Fine. So we ordered according to his recommendations, along with a bowl of matzo ball soup and the lamb kofteh. Holy shit, were we blown away.
BLOWN THE FUCK AWAY.
First, lets talk about the bread. If you’ve ever eaten at a middle eastern restaurant, you’re probably familiar with their fresh pita bread that comes out of the oven and straight to your table; when you break it open, often times you’ll see that the inside is mostly air. The bread is just a huge air pocket (perfect for filling with meat).
Well, the bread at Shaya is unlike any bread we’ve ever had. It is one huge pita loaf that does not fall flat at all. When you break a piece off, you will see that the inside of the bread is full of bread fluff. Soft, hot, fragrant, and beautiful. As simple as the bread was, it was a truly remarkable statement of what was to come: even more spectacular food.
The hummus. My husband doesn’t like mushrooms, and I do not have a fondness for hummus….so for us to get the maitake hummus and fall in love with it should speak greatly of the taste and execution that this restaurant has to offer. The hummus was perfectly seasoned and the mushrooms were perfectly cooked; chewy without being gummy, soft without being mushy. The addition of pickled peppers gave the perfect amount of heat and acid.
Next was the pumpernickel rye with smoked whitefish spread.
Whitefish spread is such a Northern Michigan staple…we were fully expecting to be disappointed in this dish. We were anticipating an overwhelming smokiness from the fish (which would make it smell more fishy), with too much mayonnaise.
To our surprise, this was probably our favorite dish of the whole trip. It wasn’t too creamy or soggy. The fish was mildly flavored and still flaky, with the perfect marriage of freshness from the radish and dill, and acidity from the pickled onions….not to mention the perfect amount of salt and pepper. A lot of times I am disappointed with sandwiches because there isn’t enough of everything in proportion to the bread. With this open faced sandwich, you get acid, salt, herbs, and meat with every single bite. It was like they perfected how a sandwich SHOULD be. They didn’t just spread a dollop of fish on the bread and sprinkle it with random accompaniments. It was thoughtfully prepared and crafted to allow you to taste how each ingredient is highlighted.
Matzo ball soup. I cannot even describe how rich and tasty this was. It was delicate and herby….with a spicy warmth that I didn’t expect. It reminded me of a hearty Vietnamese Pho broth . This is the chicken noodle soup that I’ve always wanted. It was so comforting with a giant matzo ball that was delicately fluffy and meaty at the same time.
Lastly, the Lamb Kofte. When I order Lebanese or Iraqi food at home, I almost always opt for the Khafta (I guess there are different spelling variations of this too). Historically, they always come out sausage shaped…this was my first time seeing it shaped into a large round patty. Nonetheless, it was tender, juicy, and spiced just right. It was probably the most succulent version I’ve had, as they tend to dry out a little when they are cooked.
All in all, our experience here was top of the line. The service was great, the food was even better. If you’re going to check out NOLA and are looking for an incredible meal, make sure you check this place out. Be sure to reserve your table ahead of time…..I saw them turn away people for lunch without reservations because they were completely booked.