NEW YORK – It all began when some local acquaintances were eager to tell me about two Manhattan restaurants they had eaten in – a pair of red-hot Israeli eateries flooded with a crush of customers. “You must try the food there,” they insisted. But it wasn’t easy to make a reservation at Shuka or its younger sister Shukette. Every attempt to order a table turned out to be mission impossible. To get in the door, especially at Shukette, I would have to wait a few weeks.
Meanwhile, I had time to find out something about the Israelis behind these two super popular establishments. But what I found out was totally startling. There is no Israeli chef at Shuka or Shukette. The person behind the restaurants is Brooklyn-born chef Ayesha Nurdjaja, who has fallen in love with Mediterranean cuisine. The names of both eateries derive from the Hebrew word shuk (open-air market), but she says she was just looking for catchy names, regardless of whether they mean anything to the American customer.
“I’m flattered that people think Shukette is an Israeli restaurant,” she tells me. “But it’s not.”
Having said that, however, Nurdjaja she does not deny a connection to Israel. There’s definitely an Israeli influence, she says, adding that she visited Israel twice before opening Shukette. But she had also gone to Morocco and Tunisia, and “there are influences from there too.” Those influences are also evident at Shuka, which she opened in Soho four years ago.
So what’s your Israeli connection?
“I have a chef friend named Danielle – an American-Israeli who lives in New York. Four years ago, she got married in Israel. I went and discovered Tel Aviv. It’s a city that’s easy to fall in love with, whether you’re talking about the beach or the Carmel Market. Before the wedding, Danielle and I went around to restaurants and marketplaces and it was wonderful.”
Nurdjaja adds, “I am half-Italian and half-Indonesian. Italians have two main things in life: religion and food. I felt like it was the same in Tel Aviv."
A meeting with a Druze cook
At the end of her trip she already knew she wanted to go back to Israel. By that time, her first Middle Eastern restaurant, Shuka, was already doing well in Manhattan and she was beginning to think about opening another, Shukette. While her partners wanted to open a large restaurant, “I wanted a smaller, more personal kind of place.”
In 2019, she returned to Israel with her friend Danielle “because I hadn’t seen or eaten enough there.” They cooked with people in their homes, which was an unforgettable and a formative experience. Later on the women were joined in Israel by Vicki Freeman, and Marc Meyer, the owner and manager, respectively, of Shuka, who would later open Shukette with Nurdjaja.
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During her second trip, Nurdjaja collected new impressions and new flavors of Israel. She remembers meeting a woman named Orly, of Moroccan descent, who taught her the frena bread that is now on her restaurant’s menu, and recalls the sweet-and-sour cherries salad, the pomegranates and the tomatoes she tasted in the country. “The Israeli tomato reminded me of the marvelous Italian tomato I’d tasted for the first time in Italy in 1994,” she says.
“Apparently, there’s something in the soil of the Mediterranean basin that helps to grow superb fruits and vegetables.” In addition, she became a big fan of gazoz, a local fizzy drink.
It was culinary guide Avihai Tsabari who arranged the educational tour in Israel for the New York chef and restaurateur two years ago. Among others, Tsabari arranged for Nurdjaja to meet a Druze cook named Pnina who lives in the northern city of Maghar, and Lily Aziz, who comes from a Kurdish family, on Moshav Zecharia in the Elah Valley, in the Judean Hills.
“She is so incredibly talented,” Tsabari says of Nurdjaja. “Her curiosity and passion to experience new things, to touch them, to go into depth, was really extraordinary. You could see right away that she has a modest approach, that she comes to a place and wants to see and learn about it. Within a minute of talking with her, I was very curious to taste her food. It was her second time in Israel and she came prepared. I think she is the first ‘foreign’ chef to come over and really succeed in understanding the [local] cuisine – and superbly executing it herself.”
So even though Nurdjaja insists that Shuka, in Soho, and Shukette, which opened mid-2021 in Chelsea, are not Israeli restaurants per se, an Israeli will certainly feel quite at home there. The New York Times also named Shukette as one of last year’s top 10 new restaurants.
So what’s on the menu at Shukette? Vegetable-based dishes appear under the heading “The Shuk”; meat and fish dishes are listed under “Al Ha’esh” (“on the grill,” in Hebrew). You will also see a salad Nurdjaja “imported” from the popular Habasta restaurant in the Carmel Market, plus her own versions of the sour-soft cheese labaneh, something featured as “Not Your Average Hummus” (which she learned to make in East Jerusalem), Middle Eastern breads including laffa and pita, various kinds of kebabs and tahini.
Also on offer are dishes like salt cod, jobneh (string cheese) and frena bread. There are “shawarma spiced fries,” a grilled tuna dish, and a fennel salad with pear and apple. The selection of grilled foods also includes a lovely dish called “Fish in a Cage.” The name may not be that politically correct, but it is impressive nonetheless. Pete Wells,The New York Times’ food critic, raved about Shukette’s kibbeh – “the restaurant’s best dish” – which is made of ground lamb and beef with spiced tomatoes – and its tahini (“sensational,” according to Wells), tzatziki and white harissa (a hot pepper condiment).
Shawarma and mezes
While many of these delicacies do not necessarily originate in Israel, and are characteristic of many different Middle Eastern cuisines, they do feature frequently at many restaurants in Israel. But in general, both the food and the decor definitely lend Shukette an Israeli ambience. Still, the flavors imbuing Nurdjaja’s dishes offer a pleasurable and surprising twist – likely due to her unique mix of seasonings and creative use of spices.
As for Shukette’s beverages, there are fizzy cocktails grouped under the heading “Gazoz,” and an impressive wine list. Alongside classics from Italy and Spain, there are some rather unusual wines from Georgia, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. Israel is well-represented too: There’s a Chardonnay from the Sumac Winery and the Jerusalem Winery, a rosé from Dalton, a Sauvignon Blanc from Gilgal Winery and a red from Hayotzer Winery.
Ayesha Nurdjaja was born and raised by a Catholic Italian-American mother and Muslim Indonesian-American father. Her mother was a good cook, she says, and her father, who was a chef on a merchant ship, was exposed to food from around the world. “I get my love of food from him,” she says. “He knew how to slice a mango the right way.” Her grandmother lived on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where the young Nurdjaja was introduced to different types of food: “That’s where I first discovered hummus and kibbeh, and became drawn to shawarma. I loved the mezes served in Turkish restaurants, and Italian food of course.”
Nurdjaja’s career got started while she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in business at New York’s Pace University. She often hosted people for dinner, she recalls, and discovered about that time that her real interest was in food – which led her to studies at the Institute of Culinary Education. She went on to work at a series of well-known, prestigious restaurants in the city (including Bar Artisanal and two Michelin one-star eateries, Picholine and A Voce). Thereafter she was a chef at two Italian restaurants, where she came up with her own personal interpretations of contemporary southern Italian fare.
“It was only six years ago that I felt I’d developed a culinary point of view that enabled me to work independently as a chef,” she says. It was then that she joined forces with Freeman and Meyer, who were searching for a chef for their Hundred Acres restaurant in the Soho quarter of the city. Under Nurdjaja’s influence, the restaurant became oriented toward North African, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine. In 2017, the three of them opened Shuka in the same premises, a bustling place with seating for 300 that has a slightly chaotic atmosphere.
Shuka is located near the Israeli 12 Chairs restaurant in Soho; the popular Lola Taverna, a Greek-Mediterranean restaurant, has recently opened nearby too. Thus, a whole stretch of the neighborhood’s MacDougal Street has filled up with eateries that celebrate Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine – with palpable Israeli touches. While that cuisine, reflected in the menus of Shuka and Shukette, are enjoying great success in New York, Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants are still the most popular, and for fine dining, people will usually opt for French eateries. But even if many agree that the hummus and falafel so widely available at many Big Apple eateries originated in Arab countries, it’s the Israeli restaurants – among them 12 Chairs, Dagon and 19 Cleveland – that have really put them at center stage. And now it seems that chef Nurdjaja’s establishments have managed to outflank them in terms of popularity, creating a unique Mediterranean cuisine that communicates well with the sophisticated New York palate, especially that of hipsters.
In his Times review, Wells cited Nurdjala’s modern approach to Middle Eastern food and compared her to mega-chef Michael Solomonov, who won the James Beard Prize – the culinary Oscar – for his Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia. In the same breath, Wells mentions the Bavel and Kismet restaurants in Los Angeles, as well as the famous Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose recipes have become staples in numerous Manhattan homes and elsewhere. And now Nurdjala has joined the fray of the New York restaurant world.
Next to the diners
The idea of opening Shukette – essentially a chef’s restaurant – came up before the start of the pandemic, but it only opened about six months ago. It is much smaller and more relaxed than its big sister Shuka, with seating for 12 at the bar, and room for 80 at the inside tables and 60 outside. The COVID crisis was beneficial in a way, says Nurdjaja, because they were able to expand the restaurant to include outdoor seating.
“What I love at Shukette is that I’m working right by the diners,” the chef stresses, explaining that the kitchen at Shuka is in the cellar, whereas at the newer eatery, “the kitchen and the gastronomic ‘show’ is in the restaurant itself. There I’m with the diners and that’s where I feel the most comfortable.”
How do you handle two restaurants?
“In the afternoon I’m at Shuka and in the evening I’m at Shukette. At night, when the adrenaline keeps me up, I invent new dishes,” she adds, laughing.
At Shukette, every dish that is brought out must pass Nurdjaja’s inspection. She adjusts flavors and offers feedback to the staff of some 10 cooks working alongside her. The ideal spot for a diner to sit is at the bar – if possible in the middle of it, on blustery winter days, across from the sizzling grill.
No doubt about it, Ayesha Nurdjaja is a rising star in New York’s culinary skies. And above and beyond her two restaurants, she is also enjoying a budding career on television: She appears on food shows, sometimes judges reality cooking competitions and has an Instagram program called “Shuka Talks.”
“I actually would like to have my own show,” she says. “I really enjoy being on television. I really hope it will happen,” but meanwhile, she will keep making East Jerusalem hummus for the N.Y.C. foodies.