A conversation with chef Daniel Asher about food is rarely limited to ingredients, techniques, and recipes. As he weaves in personal and culinary history, philosophy, and sociology, it becomes instead what he calls “a dialogue about all the things that bring us together.” That’s been true for as long as Eater as has been covering him, but it’s especially true with his latest project, perhaps the closest to his heart: Ash’kara.
A partnership between Asher and Josh Dinar — who co-own River & Woods in Boulder and Broadway Market stall Mother Tongue — and the Culinary Creative Group (Bar Dough, Señor Bear, Morin), Ash’Kara focuses primarily on Israeli cuisine. But Asher and his team weave other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean as well as North African influences into the LoHi hot spot’s seasonal menu too, for reasons that go beyond creative license.
“When you start talking about our global community, breaking bread is one of the more important symbols on human connection,” he explains. “So many of our conflicts could go in a different direction if people sat down and cooked a meal together. If all NATO meetings started off with a potluck in a shared kitchen, where everybody brought a dish to represent their country and took their shoes off and ate together for an hour, and then went and talked about politics, we’d have a very different world.”
The five dishes that follow exemplify his attempt to make our own little corner of that world a better — and certainly more delicious — place.
Hummus and Pita
“I was 19, visiting family in Israel, when I had my first experience with traditional Israeli hummus,” says Asher. In an ancient port town “overhanging the sea,” where historically “Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in harmony,” he discovered that “what I had thought was hummus turned out to be an American chickpea dip.”
He remembers waiting in the line of a street vendor “who was grinding chickpeas down into a paste with the largest stone mortar and pestle I’d ever seen, then pouring in ridiculous amounts of olive oil” along with “an uncomfortable amount of tahini” for a result that was more like “a sesame dip with chickpeas in it,” he says, garnished with more olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice, and herbs. “I ate my first bite with a spoon — warm and fresh and with this ethereal whipped texture, almost like an aioli. It was completely transformative.”
His own version starts with the organic Bulgarian chickpeas his Israeli uncle recommended. Smaller, with a creamier texture, they’re simmered, mashed, pureed, and mixed with both tahini paste made from single-origin Ethiopian sesame seeds and olive oil from Séka Hills, located on a tribal reservation in California: “It’s nice to have that indigenous element in such an ancient dish,” he points out. Fresh pressed lemon juice, sea salt, toasted ground cumin, fresh chopped parsley, and pimentón de la Vera round out the recipe, along with “positive intention and a lot of love.” (The chickpea cooking water, aquafaba, is reserved for cocktails.)
As for the pita that comes with it, “the whole concept of bread and what it represents — how it’s the difference between feast and famine, hunger and comfort — is a very important what we do at Ash’Kara,” Asher says. Activated by pastry chef Natalia Spampinato’s sourdough starter, the recipe incorporates whole wheat, yeast, and local honey into loaves that are fired over white oak at 750-800 degrees and served hot enough so that “when you tear them open, a puff of steam goes up, along with this aroma of char. Then you just drag a piece through the hummus, getting the smoky paprika and the grassy notes of the parsley — and that to me is the beginning of your experience at Ash’Kara.”
The Chicago-raised Asher waxes nostalgic about his first “flaming cheese experience” as a child at a family dinner in Greektown. “The server came to the table with saganaki, poured ouzo on it, 10 people yelled ‘Opa!’ and he set it on fire,” he says. “The flame shot up, he squeezed lemon on it until it went out — and I was completely mesmerized. Then I dove into this sharp, salty, melty cheese with its wonderful little bath of citrus juice and this anise note from the ouzo…I’d never had anything like it.”
Though not ignited table side for safety reasons, Ash’Kara’s saganaki is otherwise traditional, he says: “It’s a healthy portion of kasseri, marinated in ouzo overnight, dredged in a little cornstarch, and seared on the griddle so it gets this beautiful crust. Then we flip it into a small cast-iron pan, finish it under the broiler, pour in a shot of really delicious ouzo, and light it on fire. We add lemon and a sprinkle of parsley as the flames die down, and it comes to the table hot and bubbling in cast iron.”
As a dip for the pita, he adds, “It’s one of the coolest expressions of Greek fondue ever”—but regulars have begun requesting wood-roasted king trumpet mushrooms on the side to “take it to a whole other level.” Either way, he admits, “I connect to 10-year-old Daniel in Greektown every time I see it being lit on fire.”
Wood-Fired Whole Fish
Asher views this family-style entree as a statement on Ash’Kara’s various missions. For starters, it features Alamosa striped bass because, he says, “I think it’s important to highlight the legacy of aquaculture in Colorado as a land-locked state.” For another thing, “a large-format dish encourages celebration, three or four people sharing a moment.” And finally, the fact that it’s presented whole is an invitation to honor the animal. “We serve it with this beautiful brass knife and a spoon, and it’s part of the beauty that you have to tear open the skin and pull apart the meat and there are bones you’ve got to move around,” he says. “It’s not exactly polished, but this way you have to really think about the fish. It’s part of understanding our food system.”
Rubbed with olive oil and sea salt, the bass is cooked in the wood oven at a high temperature so the “skin gets beautifully crispy while the inside steams to perfection,” Asher promises. The sauce is based on matbucha, “a very rich, funky, slow-simmered tomato sauce with eggplant, garlic, and tons of spices and herbs,” while the garnish is a fennel, celery, and herb salad that also includes grated horseradish. “There’s this aromatic punch that only fresh horseradish can bring to the table,” he says. “Having that bit of heat as the finishing note is important to balancing the dish.”
Smoked Sable and Everything Spice Pita
Chef de cuisine Chris MacGillivray came up with this brunch dish as a cure for bagel-and-lox boredom, “and he did such an awesome job of conceptualizing it that people are completely mad about it,” Asher says. Slow-smoked over apple and cherry woods, the sable’s arranged in pieces over pita sprinkled with olive oil and everything spice. On top go dollops of housemade labneh in lieu of cream cheese; MacGillivray’s version combines both goat’s milk yogurt and Fruition Farms’ SheepSkyr, which is “hung in cheesecloth and strained so the whey is released over a couple of days,” Asher explains, developing this “beautiful creamy texture to cut through the smoke and the spice” before it’s finished with sea salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. A garnish of capers, pickled red onion, and radish sprouts adds snap.
Middle Eastern Cookie Tray
“Natalia has been rocking dessert, and I think she just nailed it with this,” Asher enthuses. Toasted pistachios and honey flavor the baklava, accompanied by black-and-white sesame-seed brittle; a tahini brownie brings together “savory sesame and sweet chocolate.” And finally, almond cookies would be “almost like Italian amaretti” except for the orange-blossom water that’s misted onto them from vintage atomizers table side. Ultimately, he says, “each cookie is its own expression of Middle Eastern cuisine and history” as well as a lovely little send-off from a meal that’s meant to be as meaningful as it is flavorful.
• All Coverage of Ash’Kara [EDEN]