80 Albion St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Mon 7.30am-3pm; Tue-Fri 7.30am-10pm; Sat-Sun 5-10pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
It's a shame we can't visit Shaffa in person right now. It means we don't get to experience the drama of the approach, where an alley between a 19th-century church and a sandstone hotel gives way to a vaulted glass ceiling letting in swathes of sunlight.
But more than the beauty of the dining room, energy is what defines this Surry Hills diner. "I wanted a space that felt like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jaffa," says owner and chef Erez Nahum. "This place, I swear to God you can feel the energy in the air."
Nahum decided the best way to send that energy home to customers was a lockdown menu of Shabbat boxes featuring dips, pickles and challah, a main course and salad, plus dessert, inspired by Jewish Shabbat dinner.
"In Israel, Shabbat on Friday is the best meal," says Nahum. "From morning, everyone's at the market filling baskets with food and going home to prepare dinner. In the evening we all gather around the table to eat."
Nahum thought the celebration and togetherness of Shabbat was exactly what Sydneysiders needed. Even if you're not Jewish, even if it's not Friday, Shaffa's Shabbat boxes lift us out of lockdown's doldrums.
Every week there's glossy, brioche-soft, sesame-seed-sprinkled challah, and a creamy hummus whose linchpin ingredient is top-quality tahini.
They're a delicious pair. Tear the challah with your hands and use it to scoop mouthfuls of hummus. You could fill up on just that and hamutzim pickles, but Shabbat is about abundance, so keep going.
The main dish and sides change regularly. Last week was musakhan chicken rubbed with house spice mix and roasted to golden, sealing in a flavourful meat that stayed juicy even after delivery.
Roasted eggplant with tomato salsa and creamy tahini was the vegan option. Sides were plump pearls of warm Israeli cous cous and Shaffa's version of Turkish kisir, a bulgur wheat and herb salad. While kisir is normally drenched in lemon, Nahum's has the texture of tabouleh with a capsicum paste to balance the acidity.
For two people, the Shabbat box is a feast and a cultural education that counsels saying "yes" if you're offered food.
"Israelis, we feel we know what's good for you more than you know yourself," says Nahum. "If you refuse food, we keep offering because we want the best for you. Food is love. That's why we're so happy to see you eat."
The logic follows that to make Nahum happy, you must add on dessert, which has lately been burnt Basque cheesecake, chosen not because it's a traditional Middle Eastern dish, but because cheesecake is the chef's weakness. Shaffa's version is dark golden brown, taken just to the edge of burnt, and creamy white inside.
Each week Nahum seeks ways to restore versions of menu items that weren't well suited to takeaway. Returning soon is the thick fillet of Moroccan fish with chraime, a spicy tomato sauce, and the wobbly orb of burrata whose creamy centre mingles beautifully with matbucha, a capsicum and cooked tomato salad.
Not being able to deliver more dishes from the dine-in menu is hard. "I really miss doing our hanger steak. It's got a spice rub with a lot of juniper berries and middle eastern spices. Cooked, it doesn't travel well, but I'm thinking of putting it in vac packs, already marinaded. You'll get instructions on how to cook at home."
Nahum is anticipating lockdown will still be around in September, during Jewish New Year. As Jews celebrate the occasion around the world, Shaffa will offer a take-home Rosh Hashana feast for those who celebrate the holiday and those who don't.
"It's such a weird time right now," he says. "We all need to look for reasons to find happiness. I feel so much that we need any excuse to celebrate."
Main attraction: A modern, playful approach to Middle Eastern cuisine that insists on abundance and celebration.
Must-try dish: Hummus and challah. People have strong opinions about hummus. Shaffa's has got to be one of Sydney's best.
Insta-worthy dish: Burnt Basque cheesecake served with halva is head and shoulders above the scores of other Instagram versions.
Drinks: A succinct wine list covering Australia and Europe, plus cocktails featuring ingredients like date syrup, arak and pear juice (only available when dine-in returns).
Lockdown hours: Fri-Sat takeaway and delivery (orders open from Tue-Sat until sold out).