The problem with the suddenly ubiquitous phrase “elevated comfort food” is that it’s so subjective as to border on meaningless, applying to Peking duck as easily as clam pizza. Because what’s common to one diner may be exotic or luxurious to another, context is everything.
Among the many beauties of Safta — James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Alon Shaya’s tribute to the cuisines of Israel and (broadly speaking) the Eastern Mediterranean at the Source Hotel — is the immediacy of its context. From the name, which means “grandmother” in Hebrew, to the rosy, cheerful glow of the decor, it instantly conveys a sense of familial warmth; whatever Israeli food may or may not mean to you, then, you know it’s deeply personal for him — and every last dish on the menu proves as much as it closes the gap between haute cuisine and home cooking.
On the eve of Safta’s six-month anniversary, Shaya opened up to Eater about the ways in which some of its menu’s greatest hits reflect his life experience as an immigrant, a chef — and, of course, a grandson.
Lutenitsa: “I credit lutenitsa with making me fall in love with food,” Shaya says of this red pepper, eggplant, and tomato spread. “It was the first thing I learned to cook when I was seven years old. I remember coming home from school, smelling peppers and eggplants roasting on the open flame, and getting emotional, because I knew it meant that my grandparents were visiting from Israel.”
The memory is bittersweet. “We had just immigrated from Israel to America. My life was kind of all over the place; my parents had just divorced, and my mom was raising my sister and me on her own,” he explains. “When my grandparents came to visit, that meant happiness, family, going to eat gelato at night, getting spoiled by them. So that smell drove me into the kitchen to cook with my grandmother and spend time with her.”
Recreating her exact recipe to this day, he notes that while Safta’s lutenitsa comes with pita (more on that later), “it can be a component to many different dishes. It’s great mixed with labneh, with hummus, with fish, you can put it on the cabbage — it’s pretty much good on everything. It’s like Bulgarian ketchup.”
Charred cabbage: That said, the cabbage already comes with muhammara, which — to continue the simile — is like Middle Eastern lutenitsa, minus the eggplant, plus nuts and pomegranate. “My safta would make stuffed cabbage for me a lot, and I used to love getting the cabbage that was on the bottom of the pot, when it had started to caramelize and would get all dark,” Shaya recalls. “That was always my favorite part. So I wanted to create a dish where every bite tasted like that.” Surprisingly, it has caught on. “It’s one of our best-selling dishes. I think people really love cabbage and just don’t admit it.”
Crispy eggplant: Of all the vegetable dishes that conjure his childhood, though, Shaya turns to this one as perhaps “the most nostalgic for me. My safta would bread eggplants, fry ’em up, and rub ’em with this kind of tomato paste that was cooked down with garlic and olive oil and parsley. I called it ‘tomato paste-o,’ like pesto. And that was my lunch when I came home from school. There’d be a big platter of all this fried eggplant, fried and rubbed with tomato paste and stacked up, and I’d go to the refrigerator and get Philadelphia cream cheese, spread it on white bread, put the tomato-crusted eggplant on top, and just eat it cold.”
At the restaurant, Shaya’s ritzier version of the dish is a must, with a layer of herbed goat cheese and a generous cap of fresh watercress and parsley.
Hummus with pita: Though Shaya’s flatbread and chickpea spread need no introduction at this point, they’re harboring a few secrets their legions of fans should know.
It’s not just that the pita dough contains starter from San Francisco that’s over a century old or that it ages for three days to develop character before use. According to Shaya, “The bread is also special because the flour is being milled for us at Moxie Bread Company in Lafayette. Andy, the owner there, has a big, beautiful stone mill and sources wheat from small farms for us. So you really get the great wheat flavor and all the nutritional value from that fresh-milled flour,” enhanced by the char from the wood-burning oven.
As for the hummus currently offered with four toppings, Shaya singles out the version with lamb ragù as the top seller. “When I used to cook Italian food a lot and started dabbling in Israeli cooking, I would have Bolognese sauce all the time — and I would eat it with hummus and tahini,” he says. “That’s kind of where this idea came from — making a lamb Bolognese, but with more spice.” It helps that the grind allows him to use the whole animal and “make sure we’re respecting its life.”
Pomegranate-braised lamb shank: That lamb would also play a lead role on Safta’s menu goes without saying, being central to the agricultural heritage of both Shaya’s home region and Colorado. “I wanted to support the local farms that are doing a really awesome job with our beautiful natural resources,” he says.
While featuring shanks from Buckner Family Farm, his recipe pays homage to more than one time-honored specialty from the Middle East. On the one hand, “there are the Moroccan tagines where they slow-cook lamb with fruit — usually figs, citrus, apricots, [and/or] raisins” (his team switched from peaches to pomegranates for the winter). On the other hand, the addition of labneh not only “tones down the sweet, rich sauce” pooled around the shank but also evokes the Iraqi penchant for stewing lamb in yogurt. “We try to look toward classic preparations,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll do a little spin on them, because that’s fun for us, but we’re always championing the traditional dishes.”