From the moment that chef Ayesha Nurdjaja agreed to launch Shukette, a spinoff of favorite Mediterranean restaurant Shuka in Soho, she knew she’d be getting an earful of this question: What’s the difference between Shuka and Shukette?
Over the past couple of years, Nurdjaja has been carefully refining that answer. Both restaurants highlight Levantine food, but Shukette, opening on Friday, July 9, at 230 Ninth Avenue, near West 24th Street, in Chelsea, represents a brash, energetic side of Nurdjaja’s cooking that she wasn’t able to fully unleash in Shuka’s basement kitchen. “We want it to be loud,” Nurdjaja says. “We want it to be, like, controlled chaos. If someone is clapping in the middle of the dining room here, it makes sense.”
Shukette’s charcoal grill plays a star role at the restaurant by injecting savory, smoky flavors into Shuka-favorite meats like chicken and lamb and dressing up appetizers like stuffed grape leaves that are rolled over the grill and charred. There’s a new lineup of dips at Shukette, including a take on baba ganoush made with zucchini, and a smoked salt cod dip with pickled serrano chilis. To accompany those dips, Nurdjaja created an in-house bread program at Shukette — another departure from Shuka — that includes puffy whole wheat pita, grilled lafa, and frena, a Moroccan-style bread with a dimpled top and a crispy, crunchy bottom that’s cooked in olive oil. “It’s as if a focaccia and a Sicilian-style pizza had a baby with no cheese and sauce,” Nurdjaja says.
The 80-seat restaurant revolves around an expansive open kitchen that anchors the bright dining room, which is outfitted with white oak booths and tables set up to allow diners full view of the cooks in action. After years spent working in the basement kitchen at Shuka, it was the one stipulation that Nurdjaja requested when parent company the Bowery Group — known for seasonal neighborhood mainstays including Cookshop and Vic’s — approached her about overseeing another restaurant. “I never got to see customers’ reactions,” Nurdjaja says.
Here, Nurdjaja and her team will be able to see everyone who walks in the door, and vice versa. There’s also more opportunity to interact with customers at the 23-seat counter overlooking the kitchen. There’s no separate menu at the counter, but Nurdjaja plans to use the more intimate space to talk to diners, explain what’s going on in the kitchen, and offer a few special off-the-menu dishes. A lamb broken down for dinner service might yield a few portions of kibbe naye, or lamb tartare, for example — just enough for a few plates at the counter.
Shukette’s opening has been a long time coming for Nurdjaja, who has been working on the project for over two years. Originally, the restaurant was slated to open in the spring in 2019, but was delayed for months, and then the pandemic hit. “I’ve been cooking for 16 years and I think, in my career, I’ve written the most menus for this restaurant,” Nurdjaja says. “There’s been at least 25 iterations of this menu.”
Like each of the Bowery Group’s spots, Shukette aims to be neighborhood cornerstone — even though, as Nurdjaja points out, the neighborhood itself has gone through plenty of upheaval over the past year. Chelsea had one of the highest move-out rates in Manhattan last year; but as longtime residents have exited, a new cohort of neighborhood regulars have appeared. As the neighborhood rebuilds, “I’m hoping that we can be an instrumental part of the fabric of what makes this community in Chelsea,” Nurdjaja says.