Blending cultures and flavors in New Orleans
December 24, 2013
New Orleans’ weather chased me away 30 years ago. October weather, however, can often fool even the most ardent humidity-phobe like me. Such was the case when we were in New Orleans this fall.
The cool, dry autumn air provided the perfect environment for enjoying the city sights from the sidewalk. Normally, it’s a dash from one air-conditioned refuge to another, but for three days, the north wind and high pressure blocked the Gulf of Mexico’s humidity.
After a day touring the Warehouse District, where we lunched at Cochon, and an evening family celebration at Muriel’s on Jackson Square, one would think I was done with food. One would be wrong. The following morning, before the fog of sleep cleared, I began plotting the next culinary adventure on my bucket list — Domenica.
The Roosevelt Waldorf Astoria Hotel is one the few remaining grand dames of 19th century luxury hotels. Although the hotel lost some of its luster toward the close of the last century, a massive $150 million post-Katrina renovation returned the hotel to its glory days. Under Waldorf Astoria’s management since reopening on July 1, 2009, the hotel regained its standing as bastion of luxury accommodations and stellar service.
The Roosevelt’s block-long lobby has long welcomed guests, famous and not so. In addition to the iconic Sazerac Bar, Blue Room, the recently opened Fountain Lounge restaurant and Teddy’s Bar, the hotel is also home to Domenica.
Domenica’s success as an Italian cuisine island in a sea of Creole cooking revolves around the synergy between Israeli-born American chef Alon Shaya, who grew into his culinary skin in Philadelphia, and Louisiana native and culinary entrepreneur John Besh. Together, the partners sparked a new era of dining excellence in the reborn 120 year-old hotel. The restaurant speaks to what has always made New Orleans so special, an amalgamation of cultures.
Domenica long had a place on my bucket list, but it was an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that my Israeli-American husband read a few days before our trip that first introduced me to Shaya. His Middle Eastern roots and love of Italian cuisine pushed Shaya’s restaurant to the top of my New Orleans gastronomic bucket list.
Quiet and unassuming, Shaya came to America at the tender age of 4 with his mother and sister to join his transplanted father. Although Shaya spent most of his life an ocean away from his birth country, Israel’s gastronomic melting pot is a part of Shaya’s culinary DNA.
Like so many chefs I’ve interviewed and worked with, Shaya’s culinary passion is a product of time spent cooking with his mother and grandmother. His year living in Italy before opening Domenica allowed Shaya to discover many of the country’s culinary secrets, thus laying the foundation for a successful launch.
Domenica is the realization of Shaya’s dream of owning an Italian restaurant “that speaks to who he is.” He showcases his “life experiences through his menu.” Although somewhat a stranger to the land of his birth, Shaya a culinary bridge connects him with Israel. With confidence and success under his belt, his Middle Eastern roots are emerging in his dishes, as you’ll taste below.
Small plates, huge flavor
Having discovered culinary exploration is best done through small-plate lunches, we decided to enjoy a midday meal at Domenica. I’ve never seen Dani so bold as to walk into a restaurant and make a b-line for a restaurant’s kitchen, as he did that day. There was nothing tentative or shy about his efforts to meet Shaya. Even I would have hesitated. Shaya was on the phone, so Dani left a message that he would like to meet the chef.
Once seated, we dove into the menu. Dani’s mission was to taste Shaya’s Two Run Farm lamb Bolognese on Biladi tahini with za’atar crostini. Having experienced a stellar fungal feast this autumn resulting from a bountiful Rocky Mountain wild mushroom season, I ordered chanterelles with smoked marrow butter on crostini. Domenica’s known for its 15 different creative handcrafted pizzas baked in a wood fired oven. I decided no trip to Domenica would be complete without trying a pizza. My choice — spicy lamb meatballs.
Choosing a beverage proved easy once my eye caught Malvira Roero Arneis by the glass on the wine list. Kudos to the sommelier for choosing this Arneis producer.
First came the lamb. The Bolognese, spiced with caraway and cumin, atop a shallow puddle of creamy, white tahini teased my palate with its fusion of the classic Middle Eastern dish, synia, and a rich meat-based Italian sugo. A spoonful of lamb-tahini mixture atop pastry chef Lisa White’s za’atar dusted crusty ciabatta baked daily in the wood fired oven released an explosion of flavors I’ve only experienced in Arab restaurants in Israel. Was that salt air from the Mediterranean my brain was digging up in my sensory library?
I’m a child of Louisiana’s bayou country, but I realize there is still much to learn about its cuisine. I discovered, much to my surprise, the meaty chanterelles were locally foraged. Regardless of origin, they were fat, firm sponges soaked with smoky marrow butter. More ciabatta crostini. More flavor explosions. The Arneis’ acidity sliced through the butter’s fat allowing crisp, fruit flavors of the wine to merge with the mushroom’s discreet smoky flavor.
THE PERFECT PIZZA CRUST
Now to the pizza. Call me a snob — I say I’m spoiled — but few places in America can delight me with their pizza crust. Zino in Edwards and now Domenica are two that can. Chef Shaya uses 00 flour — no surprise there — but the key to his crust’s subtly sour flavor is the four days of proofing the dough.
I always ask for “nuked” pizza. The blisters must be charred. And they were. Atop the crust sat tiny spicy lamb meatballs with just enough heat to tickle my nose, ricotta, rapini and mint on a thin layer of tomato sauce. Do I have to point out all ingredients were fresh and housemade? Although the Arneis wasn’t that happy with a dish I chose, at least it didn’t fight with it.
You’d think that was the end of our meal. And you would be wrong. As we were polishing off the pizza, we not only ordered another plate of the lamb Bolognese, but we also found a little space in our stuffed bellies for chef White’s unctuous hazelnut chocolate budino.
Early in our meal, a tall 30-something young man sans chef’s coat walked up to the table. The award-winning Shaya introduced himself and joined us for a chat. I could feel his passion for the Italian cucina as he talked of his year in Bergamo and Parma. But he admitted he now was allowing Middle Eastern flavors onto his menu. The lamb Bolognese was one such dish. I wonder what will come next.
Gluten free this meal was not, but who cared? It was a preservative free, fresh repas cooked with passion. We grudgingly said our goodbyes and walked back through the opulent hotel lobby. So many delights still to taste. My next gastronomic expedition to my hometown definitely would include a return to this Mediterranean haven on the Mississippi River.