With Shuka, Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja Unleashes Her Spirit Cuisine


Vicki Freeman and chef Marc Meyer, the husband-wife duo behind Cookshop, Rosie’s, and Vic’s (formerly Five Points), have given their old Soho spot Hundred Acres a Middle Eastern makeover. Opened earlier this month, Shuka features a menu from chef Ayesha Nurdjaja that draws on the spice-laden fare of the eastern Mediterranean that she grew up eating in Brooklyn.

“When I first came on board at Hundred Acres, we spoke about a Mediterranean concept,” says Nurdjaja. “And I wanted to dive fully into more of the eastern side, the Levant.” As Hundred Acres was inching toward its tenth year, the menu had shifted from southern American to southern European, with a predilection for the western Mediterranean portion. Then, in August, the restaurant closed its doors, Nurdjaja took off for a research trip to Israel and Palestine, and several weeks later, Shuka was born.

The Brooklyn-born Nurdjaja has long been enthralled by the flavors of the Middle East, a love she credits to weekend outings as a young child with her grandmother. Nurdjaja grew up with an Indonesian father and Italian American mother, who met over tea on Atlantic Avenue. Her father was a chef on a commercial ship, so he’d be gone for four months at a time. “We’d go through these quarterly seasons of eating Italian food and then Indonesian food,” she says. “My grandmother lived in Cobble Hill — she’s second-generation Italian, and four generations of our family were born in that house — and on Saturdays, we used to walk to Atlantic Avenue and it was kind of a day vacation. We’d eat at a place called Tripoli and shop at Sahadi’s or Damascus. My earliest food memory is of kibbeh [Lebanese beef croquettes], which I’d eat like a meatball, standing in the street. My grandmother would give me one, and I was a little tot, so it would almost fill up my whole hand — the flavors and spices just always resonated with me.”

Nurdjaja’s menu at Shuka will merge the flavors and techniques of the Levantine region with the farm-to-table ethos she covets as a chef. A roasted corn hummus and a whipped pistachio feta spread are part of the mezze offerings, along with bourekas (stuffed savory pastries) made with puff pastry, grated tomato, feta, parsley, and zhoug, a spicy herb sauce. “I am using things that are in season, which in turn allows us to create new dishes all the time. Farmers will have radishes one day, and the next day it will be turnips, so you have to, you know, [think] on your feet,” says Nurdjaja. “I was saying the other night to someone, I really cook the way I want to eat — style-wise, and also flavor-wise. I’m the worst and best person to eat out with, because I want the whole menu so I can taste it — and I kind of feel like the day of the entrée is gone.” That doesn’t include, however, large plates, of which Shuka has many, including a vegetable paella boasting a seasonal bounty of pattypan squash, romano beans, eggplant, tomatoes, leeks, and tarragon, and a whole porgy served with marinated cherry tomatoes, baby zucchini, and a basil zhoug.

Nurdjaja admits to sneaking in many preludes to her adopted cuisine before the restaurant’s transformation, and even way back during earlier stints at Italian restaurants like Felidia and A Voce. “I would throw some [spices] in. You’ll find coriander in parts of Italy and stuff, but I may have tried to push the line with those things without saying anything,” she says, reflecting on her nearly fifteen years in restaurant kitchens. “For so long, pasta was my life. I’ve tucked that [away], but you will find tremendous amounts of similarities [between the two cuisines] — the culture of the way people eat. The food brings everyone to the table, obviously. What I love the most is, [the cooking’s] the same as Italian food, but for me, mentally, it’s different. I feel with this Mediterranean, Middle Eastern thing, [there are] so many different choices.”

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