Domenica’s Alon Shaya reimagines the Hanukkah meal
As the weather turns cooler and the halls are decked, and so many New Orleanians eagerly anticipate their glazed Christmas ham, oyster dressing and eggnog, a different kind of holiday tradition is rising out of the kitchen at Domenica, in the Roosevelt Hotel.
Through Sunday, Dec. 16, Chef Alon Shaya — whom many will recognize as one of our city’s newest shining culinary stars --- will for a third year feature a special menu that some will find familiar, others exotic, but all can appreciate: a Hanukkah feast, invented anew.
Shaya, who was born in Israel but moved to the United States early in his childhood, has a deep love for and connection with Jewish food, even though his menu at Domenica, which features, among other items, a cornucopia of house-cured pork products, is nothing close to kosher (“I grew up eating bacon cheeseburgers,” he said).
Still, some roots run deeper than others, and what began as a small, informal Hanukkah meal for friends and family has blossomed into an annual celebration that will delight any diner, regardless of their familiarity with centuries-old Jewish dining customs.
But this isn’t a typical Hanukkah meal at your bubby’s house. Shaya has found a way to combine his love of the Italian cuisine featured at Domenica with the stories and traditions of his youth.
“The Hanukkah tasting menu stemmed from a lot of the foods I ate growing up,” he said, “though they’ve been reimagined with some of the Italian experience I have.”
Shaya spent time traveling through Italy, not only learning local culinary habits and conventions, but also exploring the Hebraic history of that country as well.
“I was particularly interested in the Jewish traditions of northern Italy, which, before WWII, was a very vibrant community. I went to the famous Venice ghetto, researched a lot of menus, and tried to find out what the Italian Jews eat for holidays, for Shabbat. What I found was a mix of traditional Jewish cooking and traditional Italian cuisine.”
This combination plays out on Shaya’s Hanukkah menu, but certainly not without a few updates.
After sampling the pillowy house-baked challah bread, the meal begins with latkes, only this time you might find yourself searching in vain for the sour cream and applesauce.
Fear not: These potato pancakes, fried in clarified butter to a perfect, crispy golden brown, arrive alongside a trio of imaginative accompaniments.
There’s an apple marmolata tossed with pecans and mustard oil; a creamy goat cheese whipped with herbs and garlic, served with olive oil; and a bright salad of fresh herbs, dill, and salmon caviar.
Next comes a dish that highlights the traditions of Northern Italy, where Jews incorporate spinach into their Hanukkah meals.
Said Alon, “I took spinach and ricotta, blended it with egg, parmagianno reggiano and nutmeg, and I rubbed that inside of a crepe, which we rolled, sliced, and roasted in the wood-burning oven.” The result is a crispy, intensely flavored crespelle served with an air-light, roasted garlic fondue.
For the main course, Shaya draws his inspiration from a Sabbath tradition.
Cholent, also known as “hamid,” is a long-braised dish cooked all night Friday in Jewish households, to be served on Saturday, when cooking is prohibited.
This updated version of the dish features beef short ribs, cooked for 12 hours with barley, beans, and root vegetables, and while most recipes call for eggs and marrow bones in the braise as well, Shaya instead serves his hamid topped with a gently cooked quail egg and a slathering of house-smoked marrow butter.
Dessert harks back to the chef’s childhood days in the kitchen with his mother, helping her make the Hanukkah jelly doughnuts, or “sufganiyot.” A fried funnel cake, snowy with powdered sugar, sits atop a cheesecake with satsuma curd, satsumas and fresh strawberries, an ode not only to his upbringing, but also to the season’s fresh local produce.
When the forks come to rest, Shaya hopes more than anything that he hasn’t just cooked a meal, but told a story.
“Every holiday menu I create, I call my mom to ask her how she made our holiday dinners in the past,” he said.
“I think food is best enjoyed when you know that there’s some kind of history or narrative that goes along with the dish. I believe that it means more when you eat it, and somehow that makes it taste better.”