James Beard Award magnet Alon Shaya finally reveals what his plans are post-Besh split: He will be opening two restaurants — one in his home city of New Orleans, and the other in Denver — this spring with his newly formed restaurant group Pomegranate Hospitality.
As the battle for his name soldiers on in court, neither restaurant will be named Shaya.
He won’t be stopped from making what will easily become some of the most anticipated Israel-inspired fare in the country, however. Saba (Hebrew for “grandfather”) will open in New Orleans this spring, representing “a journey through food and beverage which pays homage to the culinary landscape of Israel... [w]ith influences that stem from the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.” Specifics are slim at this point, but there will be wood-fire-baked pita breads, something of a Shaya signature. Shaya first let the news of this new restaurant project slip after a court hearing in February.
Later this spring, Pomegranate Hospitality will open Safta (Hebrew for “grandmother”) in Denver, at the Source Hotel. With a similar focus, Safta will serve those wood-fired pitas and hummus “topped with everything from tahini to lamb,” according to the release. The group’s culinary director Zachary Engel, the Shaya alum who won last year’s James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, will work on both restaurants. (He has been with Pomegranate Hospitality since October.)
This culinary team has an impressive track record, even if their company is as yet untested. Under Alon Shaya’s reign, Shaya was widely acclaimed as one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. It opened in 2015, the same year Shaya won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his work at Domenica, another BRG-owned restaurant with which Shaya is no longer involved. When the restaurant Shaya debuted that same year serving an “exquisite tribute” to the chef’s Israeli heritage, as Eater’s Bill Addison described it, the restaurant quickly won Eater’s award for Restaurant of the Year; it went on to win the 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. The chef is also working on his first cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, which is slated for release in March.
The two restaurants are a bit of good news for the embattled Shaya, who has spent the past several months battling his former partners at the Besh Restaurant Group over the future of the eponymous restaurant and the rights to his name.
Shaya was fired in September 2017, after which the chef filed for trademarks on the names “Shaya” and “Alon Shaya,” and sent a cease-and-desist to Shaya restaurant. In October, he announced his new restaurant group Pomegranate Hospitality. Then BRG sued the chef, alleging that the Shaya restaurant largely owed its success to BRG’s “PR machine.”
News of the lawsuit against Shaya broke one day before Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson’s industry-shaking expose about the culture of harassment that allegedly thrived in Besh Restaurant Group as it was run by celebrity chef John Besh and owner Octavio Mantilla. (Besh, like fellow disgraced empire-builder Mario Batali, has stepped away from daily operations, but remains an owner at his group.) Shaya, Besh, and Mantilla have equal stakes in the restaurant Shaya. After the expose went live, Shaya claimed he was pushed out of the group for speaking out against harassment, although Anderson’s report also revealed that Shaya’s restaurants at BRG “were not the safe havens from sexual harassment.”
When Shaya opened, it was an instant success. Will the same be true for Saba and Safta?