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A feast meant for sharing at Safta. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

Restaurant Review: Safta

Safta’s simple, satisfying modern Israeli fare marks a culinary debut for Denver.

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Safta

3 Stars

The Draw:
Vibrant modern Israeli small plates in a lively, communal environment.
The Drawback:
Entrees require more care and creativity.
Don’t Miss:
Glorious pita, hummus with lamb, shakshuka, charred cabbage, crispy eggplant, unique wines by the glass.

I sent a lot of people to Safta after it opened in the Source Hotel & Market Hall this past summer—advance scouts who returned with tales of pita revelation, as if they had eaten an ur-bread. The pita really is that good. It arrives from the wood-fired oven as hot as coals, charred, and puffy. Tear into it immediately; your fingers may smart, but you won’t care. Wheaty steam will rise like a blessing sent from Mother Earth, and the bread will be soft but chewy, slightly tangy, and dotted with bits of bran. Anyone avoiding gluten as a lifestyle choice will, post–Safta pita, repent and reform.

The man behind the pita is Israeli-born Alon Shaya, who branched out to Denver from New Orleans, having gained fame there with two John Besh Restaurant Group concepts: the first, Italian (called Domenica, where he won a James Beard Foundation Best Chef award), and the second, modern Israeli (called Shaya, which won a Beard award for Best New Restaurant). I don’t often dwell on backstories in reviews, but Shaya’s history is fraught and relevant. In late 2017, the Besh company erupted in a nationally reported #MeToo scandal involving complaints from multiple women across multiple restaurants. Besh was forced out. Just before the scandal broke, Shaya left the company, and a legal battle over the Shaya name ensued. Shaya (the man) lost, formed a new restaurant group, and opened Saba (“grandfather” in Hebrew) in New Orleans in May 2018, followed by Safta (“grandmother”).

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Shaya was undoubtedly affected by the #MeToo reporting; his new company publicly pronounced values of equality and accountability, and Safta’s operation benefited out of the gate. From its August launch, the restaurant was massively staffed, mostly by women, with chef de cuisine Jessica Nowicki running the show in Shaya’s absence. (Nowicki recently departed. Shaya says he will run the Denver kitchen more often going forward, and the team still includes talented pastry chef Liliana Myers.) The result has been a welcome, inclusive brio, which energizes the large, well-lit room, filled with communal tables, a long bar, and a chef’s counter. At every dinner I’ve had there, Safta has been full of guests and servers, with things generally ticking along in a happy fashion.

Chef and owner Alon Shaya. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Modern Israeli cooking is a cuisine woke to its super-regional roots. It draws from countless vectors of Middle Eastern culture and trade, Jewish heritage, and immigration out of Europe, Russia, and North Africa. Its flavor coordinates are plotted by sesame, pomegranate, salted lemons, eggplant, and tomato, as well as lamb, fish, peppers, strained yogurts, and acidic cheeses. Much of the food is infused, rubbed, or sprinkled with a bazaar basket worth of aromatic spices.

At Safta, exploring this cuisine of many colors begins with that pita and a selection of ultra-smooth, tahini-rich hummuses to dip it in. Each arrives in a shallow bowl with a layer of chickpea purée neatly applied as if by a master troweler. To all meat eaters, I recommend the version adorned with a pool of muttony lamb ragu. There’s also a splendidly arranged iteration with pickles, harissa, red onion, and a tender halved boiled egg.

Supplement the hummus with picks from Safta’s long list of “salatim,” or cold small plates: smoky baba ghanoush, “lutenitsa” (a jammy reduction of red peppers and eggplant), “ikra” (an aïolilike dip enriched with salmon roe), and tangy “labneh” (cream cheese made from yogurt) sprinkled with pink peppercorn dust.

Labneh cheesecake is a lovely dessert for two. Photo by Sarah Boyum

There’s also a fine list of hot small plates to share. Persian rice is properly crunchy at the bottom and topped with dried cherries and sunflower seeds. A Moroccan carrot salad gives the root vegetable its full, sweet due via roasting, cooling, and dolloping with labneh. Duck matzo ball soup is ducky; the soft matzo balls won praise from my wife (who knows whereof she speaks). The classic breakfast dish of “shakshuka” (eggs poached in tomato sauce with a cilantro-pesto-like Yemeni purée) is righteous, combining runny yolk and chewy-starchy Jerusalem artichokes. I also recommend the eggplant, in which two slices, fried to tuilelike crispness about their edges and creamy in the middle, sandwich tomato jam and goat cheese.

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Shaya’s family history includes grandparents who fled Bulgaria and Romania for Israel years before his parents came to America, which may explain his talent with cabbage. The dish not to miss is the charred cabbage with “muhammara,” a concoction of sweet peppers, nuts, tomatoes, and spice. The cabbage made me cheerful, singed on the edges yet cooked to interior succulence. Achieved by braising, then roasting, it’s the same technique Shaya employs with his famous cauliflower, which arrives whole, looking like a charred brain, and is served with cool, whipped feta. It’s weird but wonderful.

Safta’s killer roasted cauliflower. Photo by Sarah Boyum

I admire a restaurant that elevates cauliflower to a $24 entrée, but Safta’s main dishes don’t work as well as the small plates. The whole chicken, roasted with harissa spices, verged on dry; at $44, this bird did not quite fly. There was also a $28 cast-iron pan of Kebab el Babour, Shaya’s riff on a Palestinian dish consisting of lamb meatballs, chickpeas, and roasted Brussels sprouts in a thick tomato sauce. It was enjoyable, save for overly firm meatballs, but I found myself preferring the spice-dusted beret of collapsed pita that covered the whole thing, oily and almost ropy like a Malaysian roti.

If I have a wish for Safta, it’s that Shaya gets more adventurous with his entrées and maybe imports dishes, such as lamb tongue hummus and “shashliks” (grilled kebabs) of octopus and foie gras, from Saba’s menu. Absent such exploration, the food at Safta risks becoming repetitive. This is not to say that Safta is a tossed-off branch operation. Having spoken with Shaya, he seems smitten by Colorado and humble about whether our town will embrace him. (Disclosure: I met Shaya at a friend’s house, where he was testing dishes months before Safta’s opening. As such, I don’t claim my usual attempt at anonymity in this review.)

For now, my Safta strategy is to focus on the small plates and pick a wine. The by-the-glass offerings hail from Hungary, Slovenia, Israel, Greece, and other less familiar regions, and you can order whole bottles of these value vinos for the best prices on the list. The 2015 red blend from famed Lebanese winery Château Musar is a midweight, not overly fruity match for Safta’s food, as was the lovely 2013 Macedonian Bela Voda red from Tikveš (both $15 per glass, $60 per bottle).

Safta’s sweets offer a comforting finish. One night, we enjoyed a bowl of sweet labneh cheesecake with orange-infused granola and pomegranate caramel. It was almost sour and shot through with a lovely, bracing citrus perfume.

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The instant success of Safta is encouraging. Having dined recently in Detroit, the nation’s de facto capital of Middle Eastern cooking, I was reminded of how much culinary heritage Safta shares with the best Arab restaurants there. These are immigrant restaurants, to our good fortune. With all the ugly bickering happening now about what it means to be American, we are lucky to break bread in places such as these, and be reminded.

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