Shaya (New Orleans)

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Do not be mistaken upon planning your New Orleans itinerary. Sure, you can tell yourself it's vital to squeeze in the cup of gumbo or po-boy; but in my opinion, those Creole rituals can be pushed aside. Shaya should be prioritized.

An homage to Chef Alon Shaya's (and my) nostalgia-inducing Israeli homeland, the highly-acclaimed restaurant exceeds expected cultural depths of today's modern dining experience while remaining ever-so humble and grounded from small plate to entrée.

"Pillows of perfection" is, after much thought, the most appropriate description of  Shaya's pita. The culinary canvas for shared tapas of spices, spreads and salads, each piece eludes a piece of art, honoring Mediterranean cuisine and reintroducing flavors once forgotten in the New Orleans neighborhood.

As the pita was kneaded and baked fresh in a blue-tiled oven in the main dining room, I quickly understood the need for three chefs in the exposed prep area. The unlimited pita service is a diner's challenge and, in my opinion, a reward.

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A portion of the menu is dedicated entirely to hummus; topping ranged from lamb ragü to soft-boiled egg or butternut squash. We delved into the fried cauliflower version, which was drizzled in fresh cilantro and fragrant olive oil. I was reminded of Alon Shaya's last mark at Domenica, where the cauliflower side is a crowd favorite.

We also managed to dominate the table tasters of Israeli salad, brussels sprouts and tabouleh bowls, continuously dunking our pita in each to ensure full appreciation.

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My absolute favorite portion of the meal was the crispy halloumi, plated perfectly atop celery root and pomegranate and balsamic reduction. The cheese is such a rarity in the United States, though it's celebrated at Shaya in a preparation similar to fried mozzarella...but so much more phenomenal.

Here's my opinion: Get a table on the patio for lunch during your next visit to New Orleans. Load up on the tapas and a couple of main courses, and you'll have plenty of room by 4 p.m. for a Creole app. Don't miss this spot; it's a national winner for reason.

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