For those of us who grew up in American suburbia, there is always a strip mall: that unassuming string of stores on whatever qualifies as main street. Along with a karate dojo and a nail salon, you can be rest assured there will be a pizza joint, a Chinese takeout spot, and maybe a little cafe.
Mine was called Heights Plaza, and it was a revolving character in my adolescence. My parents would order from Pizza Market when they didn’t feel like cooking, and my sister’s first job was as a waitress at the Jewish deli called Charlie’s. I marked the passage of time by the shifting ownership of the Chinese restaurant in the corner.
Heights Plaza was certainly not the pinnacle of dining, but that only made it more special. Once I had a disposable income as a teenager, I would go to Charlie’s with my best friend, ordering a Reuben and feeling like an adult. Even the rotating Chinese corner settled as a very serviceable Szechuan restaurant, which was my first introduction to the tongue-tingling cuisine.
A couple of years ago, though, my mom excitedly told me about a new restaurant that had opened in Heights Plaza: an Israeli small plates concept called Simcha. Last year, it was named as one of the best restaurants by the Boston Globe.
Photos by Leo Schwartz
It was fair to say that Heights Plaza — and with it, my sleepy hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts — was changing. The eponymous Charlie even retired, ushering in a new generation. In November, Avi Shemtov, the chef behind Simcha, took over Charlie’s old storefront, transforming it into an Israel bbq restaurant. Sharon was on the map.
The week of Thanksgiving, when back in Sharon, I popped into Shemtov’s new restaurant, A La Esh. They had just opened a few days before, and his staff was running around as first-time customers wandered in to order lunch.
Shemtov has the temperament of a chef. He juggled his phone and a to-go cup of iced coffee as he answered questions, sneaking glances back at the counter every minute or so to make sure everything was going smoothly. Each sentence out of his mouth contained about 200 words, veering from the landscape of Boston-area dining to gripes about Yelp to his views on Sephardic cuisine.
And Shemtov was born to be a chef, even though he did not start out as one. His father was a restauranter. “He was a hustler,” Shemtov told me, opening and closing 17 restaurants. He never owned one for more than two and a half years, including a Glatt Kosher sit-down spot in Heights Plaza named King David, which predated my time in Sharon.
I asked Shemtov if his father’s chaotic approach dissuaded him from the family business. “It didn’t discourage me, in a weird way,” Shemtov said. “I love my dad, but I thought I could do it better than him.”
Still, Shemtov’s career started very differently — he was a locally-known rapper for a while, and then he went into real estate. When Shemtov was in his 20s, his father signed a lease on a pizza shop in the neighboring town of Canton before having his second heart attack. Shemtov took over the day-to-day operations.
He had no interest in serving pizza, though. Shemtov’s grandparents are from Turkey. They moved to Israel right before his father was born. Americans’ conception of Jews is generally the Ashkenazi variety, who hail from Eastern Europe, as well as the accompanying food: brisket, pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup. Katz’s Deli, in other words. Shemtov, though, is Sephardic, and his family’s cuisine is more similar to Arabic food.
Growing up in Sharon, which has a high propensity of Ashkenazi Jews, Shemtov always had a chip on his shoulder — he felt like the Sephardic tradition was constantly erased. So, when he took charge of his father’s nascent pizza shop, he decided to instead cook the food of his father’s youth: falafel, chicken shawarma, and couscous. He named it the Chubby Chickpea.
It was not an immediate success. Shemtov had never trained as a chef, and he had never managed a restaurant. About eight months after it opened, he was sitting on the beach in the Israeli resort town of Eilat on Christmas Day, reading scathing Yelp reviews. “I’m thinking to myself, I have two choices right now,” Shemtov told me. “I walk away from this, or I really dive in.” He settled on the second option.
Over the next few years, Shemtov scaled up the Chubby Chickpea and started a successful food truck. He ended up closing the storefront, but he already had his sights on his next venture: a restaurant that honored the food of his grandmother and served elevated dishes. Shemtov opened Simcha in March 2019, serving dishes from Yemenite fried chicken to shakshuka to octopus.
Photos by Leo Schwartz
Simcha was the first fine dining restaurant to open in Sharon in years. It was met with acclaim not just locally, but nationally. Shemtov ended up writing a cookbook, and the James Beard House in New York even invited him to cook under the flagship of Simcha.
“I made them come to me.” Shemtov told me. “It matters to me that people have to respect who we are and what we do.”
The small town of Sharon — and Heights Plaza, where his dad owned a restaurant decades ago — was core to his story. “I consider myself from here, of here, part of here. It isn’t a small part that I’ve decided to do these things here.”
I never had the chance to visit Simcha when it was open for in-person dining. It is still open for take-out, though, even if the food does not lend itself to the format. People don’t want to get a $24 entree in a to-go container, and Shemtov said the business is struggling. When the Charlie’s storefront opened up, he seized the opportunity to open a restaurant more suited for the moment.
When Shemtov conceived of the concept for A La Esh, the buzzword was “Israeli-inspired southern BBQ.” In reality, it is much more complex than that — a true fusion of his visions for Chubby Chickpea and Simcha, serving accessible food that honors the legacy of his family and of Sephardic cuisine.
I ordered from both. Even if Simcha is not meant to be a take-out spot, the food was rich and complex. Underneath the impossibly crunchy shell, the fried chicken had more depth of spice than any I have tried, accompanied with a tangy brussel sprout slaw. Shemtov made two innovative applications of couscous: an Israeli version of mac and cheese, and arancini balls. There were also arabe-style tacos, served on a doughy flatbread and filled with braised beef and roasted sweet potatoes, which he is planning on spinning out as a food truck concept. My favorite, though, was his adaptation of poutine, with thick fries made from chickpeas topped with sweet pulled brisket.
The dishes from A La Esh were spiritually similar, although still distinct enough to warrant a separate restaurant. Everything was smoked, tender, and packed with flavor: leg of lamb, turkey, New York strip. They came accompanied with Shemtov’s version of southern BBQ sides: chamin beans, smoked sweet potato pureau, pickled red peppers, and even two slices of white bread. A La Esh even serves a Reuben. (“I felt like it was important to have sandwiches on this menu that people could buy every day,” Shemtov told me, although I do not advise eating a Reuben every single day, no matter how delicious they are.) For good measure, I also ordered a few donuts they carry from the local cult favorite Union Square Donuts.
Shemtov has not only turned Heights Plaza into a destination, but admirably followed in his father’s shoes. Opening a successful restaurant in the midst of a pandemic while managing another is no small feat. Shemtov said that although his father has never explicitly voiced his pride, he came to Simcha before the pandemic started and ordered some food. The next week, he came back with his best friend. “That was a moment for me in my career,” Shemtov told me. “I built something that he wanted to come to.”
Photos by Leo Schwartz