Avi Shemtov, 36, wants to bring a new concept to the Boston area: Israeli-inspired Southern barbecue. His brand-new restaurant, Sharon’s A La Esh, serves traditional, Texas-style dishes with Middle Eastern spices and twists. (Right now, it’s takeout only.) He also runs Simcha, a modern Israeli restaurant now open only for takeout, and the much-loved Chubby Chickpea food truck, while balancing pandemic fatherhood — he has two elementary-school-aged kids.
So you just opened a new restaurant.
The most recent thing is, we just opened A La Esh. We’ve got two days under our belt selling Israeli-inspired Southern barbecue. It’s a project we’d already been incubating. . . . A La Esh started as a conversation four years ago or so. The opening time is strange, but [there is] the convenience factor of having it two doors down from Simcha. When the space became available, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do two things right there.
Part of the struggle we’ve had at Simcha is we’re thought of out in the suburbs as a spot that people go for anniversaries, celebrations, birthdays, whatever, a really nice night out. It’s hard to convince people to think of you as takeout. We’ve survived. I’ve kept my staff paid in full, but it’s a daily struggle. Opening a brand that would be primarily takeout in normal times makes a lot of business sense for my company.
What’s Israeli-inspired Southern barbecue?
I remember sitting on the steps the day before we opened Simcha. I turned to my sous chef and said, “We’re about to create a cuisine.” Now, with this, we really are. There is no such thing as Israeli-inspired Southern barbecue. Those are the four words we’re putting together to make it clear to people the bridge we’re trying to build.
Brendan Burek, the pit master, his background is all in traditional, very high-level, award-winning Southern barbecue: brisket that leans on Texas influences, ribs coming out of St. Louis. Everything on the menu has a true, pure, traditional American barbecue inspiration. What myself and [chef] Kyle Crusius bring to the project is the spice blends, sides we’ve been playing with a long time. It all happens organically for us.
We do a couscous mac and cheese — pearl couscous, which is pasta, and we make our macaroni and cheese out of that. Different texture, but it’s mac and cheese. A Brussels slaw with currants and apricots. We do a smoked sweet potato puree. Sweet potatoes in Israeli culture are generally a savory item before they’re a sweet item. We lean on flavor profiles we’re comfortable with. The brisket rub has sumac in it. … It’s nothing a Texas pit master would think to do, but if an Israeli landed in Texas and was washing dishes at a barbecue spot, they’d think, ‘Hey! We should put some sumac in that.’
How do you feel about your business prospects? Is it scary to contemplate?
Sometimes you’re better open than closed. How do I feel? I’m scared. Anyone in this business who really does it is. A problem we have in our industry is there are a lot of employees who are marketed as owners … But if you’re a W2 employee of that business, that’s not your own restaurant; it’s someone else’s business, and they’re letting you run it and somehow there’s a branding play or whatever. There’s a lot of folks who get to pretend the industry is all this glamour.
The reality is, those of us who really own our stuff, will tell you pre-COVID or post-COVID, we’re always scared. Always. This is a hard, hard business, and we’re a little bit crazy to be in it. How do I feel right now? I’m terrified of what this winter brings, but I will say the only way I personally know, the only direction I know how to go in, is forward. I am terrified. Every day, I hope it’s the day that the government gives a second wave of relief and customers flood us with takeout orders or the vaccine is real. I pray that happens every single day, but … they’re going to have to pry all this out of my hands. I have to go until I can’t anymore.
Where do you see things going in a year?
I see a future in this industry that might be bright. I see more independent operators of different scales. I see more folks who do the math on a restaurant before they open.
You’re going to see mom-and-pop pizza shops thriving and more mom-and-pop restaurants come to the forefront, whether it’s a close-knit staff or ownership. You’ll see more of that, I believe, post-COVID. A year from now, through my rose-colored glasses, I see COVID a thing of the past. I see consumers excited to go out and spend money supporting the businesses that they wished they could have supported this entire time. In my mind, I see Simcha jammed, music great, lights low, drinks cold. I see A La Esh next door, and our new patio is packed and people are eating good barbecue, and life is a lot easier than it is today.
What’s your preferred quarantine snack?
I eat way too many of these little corn pop chips. I think they’re Lay’s. They’re like airy waffles.
Have you been binge-watching anything?
Dude, it’s been nine months. It’s crazy. I was on the “Tiger King” thing. I binge-watched “Ozark,” and that’s the one that, if it came back, tomorrow I’d be on it.
What do you miss about Boston pre-quarantine?
I miss going into Canary Square in JP and drinking cold beer and sitting at a bar. That’s what I miss.
What’s your favorite dish at A La Esh?
The tuna melt. This is a dream of mine. … My favorite place to eat in Boston, if I’m being honest, is Jim’s Deli in Brighton. It’s an old-school diner-style greasy spoon. The owner sits at the counter, the line cooks have been there for 20 years, they talk to each other without opening their mouths. The place jams food. They make a tuna melt you’d trade your soul for. Why is it so damn good? Finally, I had to watch them. They put the tuna on the grill itself while the bread crisps up, and there’s a timing to it. You get this warmed-through grilled cheese tuna melt thing. We’re doing a similar thing at A La Esh. People are catching on. It warms my heart the most.