Home LifestyleFood & Drink Restaurant Review: Shukette in Chelsea

Restaurant Review: Shukette in Chelsea

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Shukette is the chef Ayesha J. Nurdjaja’s faster, looser, louder spinoff of Shuka. Both restaurants get their names from shuk, the Hebrew word for an open-air market, and Shukette gets more than that: the commotion and noise, the smell of cumin and charcoal, the head-spinning array of snacks and pickles and dips and skewers and hot disks of bread all evoke a Middle Eastern bazaar at full tilt.

Ms. Nurdjaja (pronounced nur-JYE-uh) opened Shukette in Chelsea in early July with the company that owns Shuka, Cookshop and other restaurants. Working behind the counter in an open kitchen that runs almost the entire length of the dining room, she loads her plates with fresh herbs and other produce. (It’s the way I cook when I’ve come home from the farmers’ market with one of everything.) Some of her plates look over-garnished, but she gets away with it because it fits into the extroverted, generous spirit that the whole restaurant radiates.

The menu is almost too long. Even though it fits on a single page, I’ve never managed to take it all in before ordering. That’s like shopping in a market, too, where before you’ve finished your survey of every crate and bin you just start pointing to things you want to eat.

Blended lavishly with tahini, the hummus is as smooth and fluffy as Chantilly cream. What makes it a Shukette dish, though, are the extras Ms. Nurdjaja scatters over the top: whole chickpeas marinated with red onions and a few spoonfuls of shatta, a piercing sauce of fresh chiles and garlic, among other things.

Chives and paper-thin wheels of serrano chiles give the whipped house-cured salt cod the kind of bright, fresh attitude you’re more likely to associate with a peekytoe crab salad. The eggplant in Moroccan zaalouk is not mashed into a paste here, but left in shiny, black-skinned pieces tossed with spiced, collapsed tomatoes and topped with crisp scallions and mint.

By this point you may be experiencing a mild loss of control as the table disappears under ceramic bowls and metal plates. Pickled beets with turmeric-stained cauliflower are as tart and crisp as you could ask. The Romano beans in lime juice and coriander seeds may be too crisp — in fact, they’re nowhere near cooked.

Never mind, here are the kibbe. They may be the best thing in the restaurant. In the center of each one, under the crackling crust, is a surprise, a spoonful of stewed lamb and beef in spiced tomatoes. The kibbe are so juicy you’ll be tempted to eat them without dunking them in the dish of tahini that comes alongside. But the tahini is sensational — spicy, almost pink with ground chiles.

At Shukette, the line between dips and nondips can be a fine one. You may be lukewarm about the ginger-scented meatballs of fresh albacore but compelled by the stiff bed of yogurt under them, salty with preserved lemons.

You may decide that the grilled zucchini plate’s finest hour comes when the zucchini is gone and there’s nothing left to do but plunge crusts of bread into the swirl of dressings left on the plate — tahini, shatta, olive oil and the juices of charred Sungold tomatoes, fragrant with sesame seeds and chopped pistachios.

For those crusts, Shukette has four kinds of bread, all baked or grilled or griddled to order. The whole-wheat pita arrives at the table puffed up with steam; the laffa is thickly spread with za’atar and olive oil; the Moroccan frena, something like a small focaccia studded with cloves of roasted garlic, can be so hot it burns your fingers.

Shukette’s approach to Middle Eastern cooking — built around extremely fresh produce, laced with smoke, and profligate with herbs and spices — is overdue in New York. Zahav, now in its second decade, is a Philadelphia institution as firmly established as John’s Roast Pork. Before the pandemic, Bavel and Kismet ushered in a new era of flatbreads and kebabs in Los Angeles. And when dinner parties were still being given, it was rare to find a host in Manhattan who hadn’t memorized at least one Yotam Ottolenghi recipe. The city’s chefs, though, have been slow to take a modern approach to the cooking of the Mediterranean’s eastern and southern rims.

Research in Israel shortly before the pandemic helped Ms. Nurdjaja zero in on the style. The tall, fizzy drinks decorated with sliced fruits, spiralized vegetables and corsages of flowering herbs are new to Chelsea, but they’re all the rage in Tel Aviv, where they’re called gazoz.

Another Tel Aviv souvenir is the cherry salad, the signature of a wine bar called Basta, just off the Carmel market. On paper, this is a simple number in which fresh serrano chiles, cilantro and a little garlic are tossed with sweet, dark cherries. When you taste it, though, your eyes water and your head spins. The herbs and the heat level are completely unexpected in a bowl of cherries; it’s like seeing Dakota Fanning turn up as a Manson girl in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”

Shukette tries to keep the action boiling right along when the larger dishes start to arrive. Sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes it doesn’t. Fish in a Cage, a charcoal-grilled porgy under a brick-colored coat of spices and chiles, comes with enough corn and zucchini to make a small picnic, even if the decision to bring all of this to the table inside the actual grilling cage nearly causes more trouble than it’s worth. And while the skewered lamb is slightly upstaged by the eggplant and peppers on the same kebab, the meat is tender enough that it doesn’t matter.

But the squid is almost impossible to remove from the skewers it’s fried on, thanks to a batter that cements itself to the metal sticks. The same batter makes the fried squash blossoms impenetrable, too. It must be made with Kevlar.

There is only one dessert, a soft-serve sundae with tahini-oat milk ice cream, toasted hazelnuts and a topping of halvah floss that swoops upward like the chef Anne Burrell’s hair. The halvah floss melts like cotton candy on your tongue. The ice cream itself feels like the smoothest thing you’ve ever tasted. It is a marvel.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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