2015 Restaurant Of The Year: Shaya

In America, there are restaurants known for serving excellent examples of a certain dish like sushi or steak; there are those that specialize in a certain cuisine, such as Thai or French; and there are those that consistently deliver such a special culinary experience that they are counted among the country's very best.

Finally, there is an elite group of restaurants whose chefs and menus change the way we think about dining, significantly influencing their guests and colleagues across the nation — and perhaps even around the world.

Of course, it isn't just about who demonstrates the highest level of skill in the kitchen; we address that in naming our annual Chef of the Year. The holder of that title isn't necessarily the man or woman behind the year's game-changing restaurant. As The Daily Meal's editorial director, Colman Andrews, so aptly stated, "We are talking about more than just good or innovative food here. This is about restaurants that mean something, either through demonstrable influence on other places or maybe just because they have gone their own way so firmly that they are inspiring even to those who don't imitate or riff off them."

This year, we considered 10 restaurants from around the country that we thought best fit this description, looking at reports from our own site and other respected food sites and publications, finding our nominees in metropolises such as Chicago and New York, but also in smaller cities and towns like Cleveland; Clayton, Missouri; and Los Gatos, California. It didn't matter the size of the restaurant; the sole criterion used while identifying nominees was that the establishments made significant contributions to the American restaurant scene in 2015 and changed the way we thought about dining out in this country.

Once our list was finalized, we asked select members of The Daily Meal Council — including writers, journalists, bloggers, and restaurateurs — who did not have an establishment in the running for the title to either vote for one of the restaurants we had identified, or write in one that we missed but they believed deserved the accolade. We also polled our knowledgeable Daily Meal staff and our passionate city editors from around America.

In the end — just like last year — there was a clear winner and two restaurants that deserved honorable mentions. We proudly present: the Restaurant of the Year for 2015.

Honorable Mention: Providence, Los AngelesProvidenceLos Angeles

" in its quiet way embodies everything a restaurant should aspire to be." That is the high praise Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold heaped upon chef and co-owner Michael Cimarusti's seafood-driven venue, which Gold named ' No. 1 restaurant for the third consecutive year last month. He's not the only one smitten by Providence, as other accolades garnered by the establishment include two Michelin stars, a spot in the Top 50 Restaurants in the United States by Gourmet magazine, and an accolade as the city's Best Seafood Restaurant by Los Angeles magazine — not to mention the fact that Cimarusti was nominated this past spring for the James Beard award for Best Chef: West.

While awards and acclaim are all very nice, however, it's what Cimarusti is actually doing — and not doing — in his kitchen that earned him this honorable mention.

The chef has managed to take the broad concept of seafood and simultaneously deliver both a worldly and localized culinary narrative on his plates. True, his proteins are sourced from all over the globe, but he makes sure it's done so sustainably; so, while you may find prawns from Santa Barbara and Norwegian red king crab, you certainly won't see dishes of Chilean seabass or Florida marlin coming out of this kitchen. Meanwhile, guests are always reminded of exactly where they are enjoying their meals, as much of his produce is sourced locally in California, which in turn creates a sense that you are eating some of the best food that both the world and the local area have to offer.

Chefs typically shy away from monikers such as "signature dish," but some of the best chefs have created them in recent history — Ferran Adrià had his olive at elBulli, Jonathan Waxman's roasted chicken at Barbuto is legendary, and now Cimarusti's Ugly Bunch is attracting similar attention from critics and diners alike. Slices of geoduck clam and generous dollops of uni are arranged on a pool of smoked crème fraîche along with colorful edible flowers, uniting the essence of both land and sea in one bowl, delighting the eyes and the palate, and surprising the guest by showcasing these ingredients in a way most likely never before executed.

Honorable Mention: Cosme, New York CityCosmeNew York CityPujol

, in 's Flatiron district, perfectly embodies chef Enrique Olvera's culinary background. Born in Mexico, he spent hours in his grandparent's kitchen as a child, which cultivated a love for cooking within him. Fast forward about a decade, and Olvera decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America in the Big Apple. Four years later, he opened the now-acclaimed in Mexico City, after the turn of the millennium. Then, in the fall of last year, Olvera gifted New Yorkers with Cosme, and there has been a steady stream of praise directed its way ever since.

In his three-star review of the restaurant in February, New York Times critic Pete Wells reported that "the cooking is a thrill, largely because it sails right over ideas like tradition, authenticity, and modernity. Many underpinnings come from Mexico, while a lot of the ingredients were bought locally. The flavors are here and now, though; you connect with the dishes right away." In other words, he hits diners' expectations of Mexican food on the head while also delivering his own unique vision of this food, which feels distinctly modern and absolutely inimitable.

It's this balancing act between what is expected and what can be achieved, which Olvera so impressively maintains, that makes Cosme so extraordinary. In a piece published on The Daily Meal last year, Colman Andrews expounded on Cosme's tortillas, explaining that "Sometimes you can't improve on simple perfection." Tortillas are one of the essential building blocks of fine Mexican cuisine, and the chef's care in developing his is testament to both his a priori understanding of his home country's cuisine, as well as his utmost respect for it. (Pete Wells recently cracked that Cosme's tortillas made other examples around New York City seem like "corn-based coasters.")

Cosme is rightly known as much, much more than a joint with excellent tortillas. There's scallop aguachile with poached jicama and fresh wasabi-cucumber-lime, and "Ants in the Forest" (sirloin carpaccio, various lettuces, chicatana ant oil, and radish) — dishes that expand the palate and mind of those that order them. He sources much of the menu from the surrounding Hudson Valley, which — just like Cimarusti's produce sourcing in Los Angeles — reminds guests of just where Cosme is located, while at the same time brings traditional and modern distinctly Mexican flavor profiles to the table.

In order to strike this perfect balance, Olvera spent the year leading up to Cosme's opening studying some of the most successful restaurants in the city and asking notable chefs for advice on how best to serve New Yorkers, who are notorious for being underwhelmed and unimpressed by top chefs' best efforts. Remember, this is not an up-and-coming chef opening their first restaurant, but rather a globally-acclaimed master of the kitchen — and his humility and dedication has paid off. The space is clean and calming but short of cold, and while you can hear your dining companions' exclamations of joy at the bites they just took, the noise level is far from mausoleum-esque. Nearly everyone who enters Cosme agrees that it's a modern culinary revelation, which in turn makes the restaurant one of the most innovative and exciting we've seen in a long, long time.


How , which serves Israeli food, was born down on the bayou in is a story indeed.

James Beard award-winning chef Alon Shaya immigrated to Philadelphia from Israel with his family at age four, but he maintained a connection to the country he barely remembered through the hummus, tabbouleh, and other Middle Eastern staples the matriarchs of his family continued to cook. After training at the Culinary Institute of America as an adult, he held the title of chef du cuisine at Besh Steak, working closely with acclaimed New Orleans-based chef John Besh.

Shaya served signature Creole soul food to Katrina relief workers after the hurricane hit New Orleans in 2005. In 2011, Shaya and Besh — along with Shaya's future wife — visited Israel to cook kosher New Orleans fare for Israeli soldiers, returning to America with the concept of a New Orleans-based Israeli restaurant already percolating in their minds.

In February of this year, Shaya the restaurant became a reality.

Chef Shaya opened his eponymous restaurant in partnership with chef Besh, which is a testament to their longtime professional relationship, as besides beginning his cheffing career at Besh Steak, Shaya is also executive chef and partner with Besh at Domenica and Pizza Domenica. It also speaks to chef Besh's love of collaboration and bringing outside-the-box restaurants to New Orleans, just as he did with chef Aarón Sánchez and their restaurant, Johnny Sanchez.

There was an immediate positive response from the press and local guests, and it's easy to see why. New Orleans is known for its Creole and classically Southern soul food; at Shaya, guests can dig into soul food of a different flavor — food that's unexpected in the region. There's curry-fried cauliflower with caramelized onions and cilantro; avocado toast on rye bread with whitefish and pink peppercorns; and excellent falafel with cabbage salad and cucumber tzatziki.

These are not the dishes that would ever come to mind as must-tries in The Big Easy — until now. And that's what makes Shaya so special: It's a sleeper hit from two of America's very best chefs, a delicious education of the American palate from masters who have demonstrated that they know it well. It's their way of showing us that our patriotic tenet that in America, there is a place at the table for everyone, can be enacted directly through the food on the plate.

We spoke with the two James Beard Foundation-honored chefs about their decision to serve desert cuisine to a city surrounded by swampland, and what they have in store for us in the near future:

The Daily Meal: Did you consider opening a restaurant that specializes in Israeli cuisine in New Orleans a risk?
Chef John Besh: Certainly we questioned how we might message what Israeli cuisine is, especially since Israel herself is still in the process of defining it. A true melting pot cuisine with global influences is difficult to encapsulate in a sound bite. That said, if we offer incredible food, generous hospitality, and humility of heart, people would soon learn!

How has the response of the public and media to Shaya been in your experience?
Chef Alon Shaya: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm so happy the people of New Orleans believed in what we were doing and came try it in the first place. We really love being a part of this community. The national media attention was completely unexpected, but it's great because it proves to the team that their hard work and passion is being recognized by so many people. We are making simple Israeli food like hummus and pita, but we try and make the best it can be. I'm glad the media and our community appreciate those efforts by our team.

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
Chef Alon Shaya: We have really been focusing on strengthening our foundation as a restaurant group. My director of operations, Shannon White, and I are now overseeing just under 300 employees between Shaya, Domenica, and PIZZA Domenica, and we've decided to focus solely on our staff and current operations so we can be strong for any future growth opportunities.