Alon Shaya's New Nola Restaurant Does Something Special with Pita
The contemporary Mediterranean cooking at Saba draws inspiration from Israeli street food and local Louisiana ingredients.
On Wednesday, Alon Shaya opened the doors to his long-anticipated new restaurant, Saba, in New Orleans, and as you might have predicted, the pita operation is a big deal.
"It’s the best we’ve ever done," Shaya tells Food & Wine. "We’re partnering up with a local mill, Bellegarde Bakery; they’re milling wheat berries that they’re sourcing from small farms around the country. The dining room last night smelled like freshly milled wheat."
Saba's menu reflects the modern Israeli-inspired sensibility the chef has come to be known for, while chef de cuisine Cara Peterson has invigorated the restaurant with street food flavors, using a repurposed wood grill she found to cook kabobs, seafood, and meats over coals, just like you see on Israeli streets. There's an entire hummus section on the menu—including one topped with jumbo blue lump crab meat with lemon and butter and mint—as well as, surprisingly, a caviar service. (They're serving the caviar with New Orleans' own Zapp's Potato Chips, of course.)
As pita is only four ingredients—wheat, water, yeast, and salt—every detail matters. (Though at Saba, it's actually five ingredients, as they add a little oil to the dough.)
"What makes it really distinct is the milling process and fermentation process," Shaya says. "We let the dough age for a few days prior to cooking it."
Saba is also branching out into ambitious large-format dishes that might rival the pita for star power, including a whole chicken roasted with harissa. The secret to the chicken's juiciness? A whey brine. We should all probably be doing this at home: After straining locally-sourced Bulgarian yogurt through a cheese cloth to make labneh, Peterson uses the extra water (whey) strained out as an overnight brine, mixing it with salt and sugar. She's also cooking kabobs and schwarma over coals, and one dessert involves blistering an entire banana, skin on, inside the coals.
"They get all charred and caramelized on the inside," he says. "I was in Mexico City once, and I had a plantain done that way and it really inspired me. It gets so sweet. You can even eat the skin."
The most exciting innovation at Saba, however, is not a technique, but rather the painstaking creation of a kitchen culture that is healthy, safe, and sustainable its employees. Shaya, who was fired from the Besh Restaurant Group in September of last year, claimed he was pushed out of Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya for speaking out about John Besh's alleged sexual harrassment, as well as the toxic workplace culture fostered by the restaurant group. After a legal battle with his former partners in which Shaya attempted to retain the rights to use his name in future projects, the chef ultimately switched his energies towards launching Pomegranate Hospitality and the launch of Saba.
With the help of Suzi Darre, who serves as Pomegranate Hospitality's Director of People & Culture, Shaya is committed to proving that there's a better way to run restaurants.
"More important than the food and the beverage is the culture we’re setting for our team, and how we’re really structuring our values to be part of everyday life at the restaurant," the chef says. "They encompass our recruiting process, our evaluation process ... We’re working hard to create a great work-life balance with our team." The Hospitality Group has teamed up with a local gym to offer membership to employees, as well as guaranteeing paid time-off (including on major holidays.) The other day, everyone put on paper hats and sung "Happy Birthday" to one of Saba's line cooks.
"It’s those little things we’re working really hard on to make a better," he says. "We’re doing our best work yet as a team."
Saba is partnering with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to raffle off dinner at Saba's Table, the restaurant's 14-seat private table, on opening weekend: Saturday, May 5, which will include a five-course meal with wine pairings, gratuity, and conversations with the chef. Proceeds will go towards NOAHH and their efforts towards affordable home ownership for New Orleans.