After spending years cooking in some of New Orleans‘ top restaurants, Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya decided to open a restaurant dedicated to the foods he grew up cooking and eating with his grandmother. He spent much of last year traveling around Israel to research the menu for his namesake restaurant, Shaya, which opened in The Big Easy in February.
A true perfectionist, he recently returned to Israel to search for ways to make the menu even better. “My mission was to focus on techniques for cooking meats and fish on skewers over hot coals, searching for the perfect kebab, and getting a better idea of the Balkan influence on Israeli cuisine,” he says. Here, he shares the most delicious moments from his trip.
Mizpe Hyamim, Rosh Pinna
“Mizpe Hayamim is an oasis within the rocky hills of northern Israel. It’s important to plan ahead and stay on the property at least a half day to appreciate the passion and work the owners have put into being a self-sustaining organic farm, resort, and spa. Beautiful fruit orchards and vegetable gardens lay around every turn of the property’s magical walking trails. A tea bar stocked with wild herbs foraged from the hills and honey from the hotel’s hives are available for guests. Guests can visit the hotel’s bakery and dairy and watch artisans make the pastries, breads, and cheeses found each morning at breakfast—I think it’s the best breakfast served in Israel. The farm also raises cows, sheep, pigeons, and chickens on the property. You can even enjoy soap made from lavender harvested from the hotel gardens while soaking in your bubble bath at night overlooking the Sea of Galilee.”
Shishko Bulgarian Bar, Tel Aviv
“Right in the heart of Tel Aviv is this hip bar and restaurant with an amazing Israeli beer selection and killer bar snacks. Shishko also serves the best kebabs I’ve ever had in my life, with garlicky tahini sauce to dip them in. I knew right away I was going to change my recipe the second I tasted this kebab. It was plump and juicy and had just the right amount of spice. I dipped it in tahini, closed my eyes, and I was in heaven. An assortment of salatim (small salads and dips) are great to share. Try roasted squash with spicy tomatoes, a creamy fish roe spread called ikra, and golden challah rolls for dipping. Beautiful people come and sit at the bar’s outdoor tables until late in the night.”
Abu Hassan, Jaffa
“Plan on going here twice when you’re in Jaffa. The guys that own this unassuming hummusiya in the ancient city of Jaffa make some of the best hummus I’ve ever had. You can use fluffy pita bread to dip into hummus with tahini, or adopt a traditional method of using a sweet raw onion slice to scoop up hummus that has creamy fava beans spooned into the middle. I prefer to take my plate and sit on the sidewalk, watching the bustling streets of Jaffa in action or looking towards the harbor that is the setting for famous Greek myths involving serpents and mermaids.”
Opera Restaurant, Hadera
“North of Tel Aviv on the way to the ancient ruins of Caesarea (a piece of history you won’t want to miss) you can stop in the town of Hadera to eat at my favorite Yemenite restaurant, Opera. Go there for the Yemenite soups. They have several different kinds, but the chicken is the most sought after. They are masters of such Yemenite breads as lachuch, which is like a savory pancake and perfect for soaking up the spiced broths, and malawach, a crispy, flaky, buttery bread that goes beautifully with grated tomatoes, zhoug, and hummus. Bring lots of people with you to enjoy the plethora of salads and spreads they put down on the table when you arrive.”
Azura Restaurant, Jerusalem
“Azura is a great example of soulful Iraqi Jewish home cooking. The restaurant is located in the Iraqi section of the Jerusalem market. The kitchen has a dozen large pots full of tender stews, soups, and stuffed dumplings bathing in different spiced broths. There was a delicious spiced lamb ragu the chef spooned over chargrilled eggplant that had been roasted in chicken fat and topped with pine nuts. At one point during my lunch I saw a cook remove an entire eggplant stuffed with cinnamon-scented meat and rice from a murky tomato and pepper broth. Their hummus is insane, and you will find it hard to not fill up on the appetizers while you’re waiting for their killer kibbeh, meat-filled semolina dumplings slow-cooked in a sweet and sour soup.”
For more on hummus in the Middle East—and a recipe!—read this.