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New Orleans Best of Dining 2012

Top Places, People and Discoveries

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So this guy is looking at a menu and asks the waiter, “What is the soup du jour?” “How should I know?” the waiter responds. “They change it every day.”

We expect, and get, more from our restaurant professionals in a town where the dining industry is a passion as well as an economic development tool. On any day our range of soups could include not only the regular fare but also dark-rouxed gumbos or savory bisques. What does change every day is restaurants’ news. For that, the flow is steady and the challenges many, as we continue to look for the best in an ever-changing industry.

Each year our restaurant writing staff huddles in a closed conference room to discuss the best of dining for the past 12 months. As always, the choices are many. Those who we select are all certifiably excellent, but we know that there are other worthy choices out there, too. That is why year after year we keep looking – because there are always new pots to be stirred.

Chef of the Year | Alon Shaya
Food as happiness

When Alon Shaya was 7 years old, his grandparents came over from Israel to spend the summer with him in Philadelphia. “The whole time, my grandmother was in the kitchen, cooking up a storm,” he recalls. “I’d open the front door and this aroma would hit me in the face. And I remember not so much being excited about the food, as I was excited that she was there. Ever since, I’ve associated food with togetherness and just being happy.”

Shaya began working in restaurants when he was 14. As chance would have it, his first employers were Italian. He felt innately comfortable around that food, as it shared some similarities with the Israeli food he grew up with, ingredients like olives, goat cheese and roasted eggplant. And while he didn’t consciously set out to cook Italian, this confluence of family and serendipity laid the groundwork for what would later become Domenica.

Domenica has enjoyed praise from the get-go, but it has leveled up in the past year. Early press brought John Besh’s name to the fore, but now it is all about Shaya – and with good reason. A combination of practical business sense – Shaya has leveraged the popularity of his Neapolitan-style pizzas to include a delivery service and a broader array of offerings – is one reason. But a bigger reason is that his technical ability and his personal expressiveness have come into harmony with his dishes, which are turned out by a focused and highly attenuated staff. “We all really know each other well – a lot of them have been here since day one,” Shaya says of his crew. “Things just flow.”

Domenica’s genesis and more recent evolution is the product of two significant journeys. The first, the cornerstone, was Shaya’s extended stint in Italy in 2007 leading up to the opening, where he absorbed Italian cuisine from both technical and cultural perspectives. The second was a trip to Israel a year and a half ago as a guest of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, where he cooked for a number of charity events as well as a Shabbat dinner, culminating with a meal for Israeli troops in the Golan Heights. “That trip just really moved me and just gave me a flashback to my childhood,” he says. Shaya came back inspired, and influences began to appear on the menu at Domenica shortly thereafter.

The cavernous room is carved out of the Old World opulence of the Roosevelt Hotel. It contrasts with the rustic feel of paper placemat menus and glasses made from recycled wine bottles. It is clearly a sophisticated place, but it makes an effort to keep itself grounded. Light dishes, such as Shaya’s tender Octopus Carpaccio, exist alongside showier set pieces, such as a whole roasted cauliflower dressed with sea-salt and whipped goat cheese. An earthy tagliatelle with rabbit and porcini mushrooms warms like a hug. But despite the assortment of choices, a diner here could be utterly satisfied without getting past the charcuterie plate.

Among the house-cured meats is a garnet-hued bresaola, and for spreads there’s a particularly silky duck liver pâté enhanced with Moscato. The prosciutto moves so fast that they import it from Italy, but all other items are made in-house. It isn’t just the meats, though – cheeses add another dimension, like a surprisingly mild blue from Sardegna and a sharp pecorino. The accompaniments include, lately, a pickled fennel along with warmed olives and Shaya’s addictive mostarda made with candied fruits underscored with sharp mustard. “That’s the way I like to eat,” Shaya says. “Mix and match like 30 different flavors all off the same platter.” A tip from Shaya – drape a ribbon of shaved lardo over his torta fritta. The heat from the savory beignet causes the lard to meld into the pastry, doubling-down the goodness.

Israeli influences can be seen in a new pizza featuring puréed eggplant first roasted under the cherry-red coals of his wood-burning oven. Topped with extra-virgin olive oil, goat cheese and tomatoes, it gets finished with tahini. “Now there is nothing Italian about tahini, but the flavors on the pizza really come together,” he says.

Most notably though, these influences aren’t fusion; they’re expression. Domenica is and always will be Italian. But Domenica now speaks more pointedly with Shaya’s voice. “Of course I have to balance it because we are an Italian restaurant, and people are expecting Italian,” he points out. “Southern cuisine plays just as much of a role in that as well. So you’ll see the menu now as compared when we opened three years ago as still holding onto this Italian backbone but with these hints of Israeli and Southern low-country coming through.”

It has been a big year both professionally and personally for Shaya, who got married in March. When not busy at Domenica, he enjoys entertaining at home. While on honeymoon in Barcelona, he bought a paella pan, which figures in his home cooking along with a Big Green Egg smoker. He likes shopping at Hong Kong Market on the West Bank, and is also a fan of Ideal Market on Broad and Banks streets in Mid-City, where he goes for tortillas and fresh salsas. “I hit the farmers markets’ for proteins. I get Bayou Farm’s chicken for the smoker and goat from Bill Ryals. I cook Italian all day long at Domenica, so I like to mix it up at home.” In this way, Shaya remains connected to the boy in the kitchen at summertime. “I roast bell peppers over the open flame on my gas stove just like my grandmother did,” he says. “And now whenever I roast a bell pepper like that, I think of her.”

– Jay Forman

Domenica, 123 Baronne St., 648-6020, DomenicaRestaurant.com

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