Israeli Restaurateurs Broaden Their Horizons With a New Eatery in London
The chefs who made Machneyuda into Jerusalem’s hottest ticket team up with British nightclub owners to open The Palomar
Five years ago, three chefs in Jerusalem joined forces to create Machneyuda, a restaurant named for the way locals hurriedly pronounce “Machane Yehuda,” the city’s legendary shuk, or market. The cramped eatery—the open kitchen sometimes threatens to spill over into the dining area, which in turn doubles as a pantry—quickly became Jerusalem’s hottest ticket. Even the foodies of Tel Aviv, hitherto unaccustomed to leaving their own culinary mecca, began making pilgrimages.
Building on the success of Machneyuda, the chefs subsequently opened several more restaurants, but they had one thing in common: They were all in Jerusalem.
Until now. On May 27, those Israeli chefs will team up with two British nightlife impresarios to open The Palomar, a new restaurant in London’s Soho district. “We’re going to be doing our own thing: modern Jerusalem cuisine,” said Assaf Granit, one of the chefs. “We think there’s a craving for extreme tastes there, and we’re excited to see what the reaction will be.”
The elements of a typical night out at Machneyuda are by now iconic: the loud, eclectic playlist, which, combined with the kitchen staff’s propensity to imbibe alongside the guests, invariably leads to impromptu haflot—cooks beating on pots and pans with drumsticks while patrons dance on tables. Israel’s popular satire show Eretz Nehederet spoofed the restaurant in a skit, where a young Tel Aviv couple visiting the capital’s “Machneshuk” for the first time is feted by waitstaff prone to singing a lively refrain of “shik shak shuk.” At the entrance, a hostess cheerily informs a suicide bomber and an angry ultra-Orthodox Jew that tonight is not such a good time for them to visit: “We have guests here from Tel Aviv!” (They understand completely, and she serves them drinks while they wait.)
The success of Machneyuda spawned a wave of imitators. Restaurants around the country were mimicking Machneyuda’s humorously descriptive menus: “High-definition” tuna sashimi, Django Unchained-style entrecote, Uri’s mom’s famous semolina cake with tahini ice cream, and even a striped bass dish called “out of the depths I cry to you,” echoing a verse from Psalms. But they lacked Machneyuda’s secret weapons: its chefs—Granit, Yossi Elad, and Uri Navon—who displayed unique wizardry with the seasonal produce on offer in the adjacent market, and an informal atmosphere light-years away from anything resembling fine dining.
“I think the trend has come and gone,” Granit told me. “Trends never last for five years. The copycat restaurants have all closed.”
Granit, 35, sports a buzz cut and several tattoos, including one of a buffalo; buffalo is also his nickname, a relic of a heavier past. His is the most famous face of Machneyuda’s three chefs: He made it to the final of Israeli television’s Iron Chef prior to opening Machneyuda and spent the past five months as a judge for Game of Chefs, where he easily stepped into the role of tough guy. (One particularly memorable moment had him kicking a trash can repeatedly in frustration.) The ensuing attention, he said, has been good for business. Today he devotes the majority of his time to managing that business: The Machneyuda group, of which Granit is CEO, now owns and operates five restaurants employing 350 people. “It’s insane,” he said, “like running a factory.”
“The Machne,” Granit said, “was created in the image of its chefs, which is why it’s a little crazy. We wanted a place that could accommodate a fancy tasting menu for business people, while at the same time serve a drunken bachelorette party.” When the chefs rented a place across the street as extra kitchen space, they soon realized that their overflowing restaurant—booked solid months in advance—could use a bar for diners to hang out before their tables were ready. It became the Yudale, a tapas bar in the vein of its older sister and a minor institution in its own right, with an even more raucous atmosphere (and the added advantage, for the spontaneously minded, of accommodating walk-ins).
A year later, they took over and reworked the menu of Mona, a charming, classic restaurant in the Jerusalem Artists’ House, the historic former home of the Bezalel art school and one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. HaSadna (“The Workshop”), a highbrow steakhouse by the old railway station, followed. And last December they opened Talbiya, a café by day and wine bar by night in a hole in the wall beneath the Jerusalem Theater that for 35 years was the site of Jan’s Tea House, a local favorite. The new restaurants—managed by former sous-chefs groomed in-house to join Granit, Elad, and Navon as partners and chefs—rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth for publicity and end up serving at full capacity on a regular basis.
It’s a far cry from Granit’s early days. A Jerusalemite from birth, Granit was raised in the city’s southern Nayot neighborhood. He fell in love with the kitchen after his military service, when he stepped in for the cook at the German Colony café where he was employed and essentially taught himself the ropes. But just as he was coming of age as a chef, the second intifada was raging outside and Jerusalem’s restaurants were empty. “It was frustrating. Most weeknights we’d spend most of our time waiting by the bar. It changes your whole perception, the fear seeps in deep,” he said. “Only today, five years after opening Machneyuda, I realize that my restaurants are full and I don’t have to worry anymore. I can invest in buying a nice new oven.”
Machneyuda opened just as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was beginning his first term, and the group’s restaurants have been an important part of the city’s subsequent revival and rebranding. “The Jerusalem renaissance couldn’t have asked for a better culinary champion,” said Itay Mautner, the artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, a summer arts festival. Last summer, under the auspices of the Season, Granit spent three weeks manning a food truck. As Mautner put it, “We took a big old truck and turned it into a fully equipped kitchen on wheels. Every day we set up shop at a different site, with a different dish and a different Jerusalemite who helped us serve it. We weren’t just trying to feed the city’s residents—we got to rich and poor, East Jerusalem and West, yeshiva boys and sports fans—but to tell the story of the city through the dishes we served.” Granit said it was one of the toughest summers he’s had but well worth the effort: “The last evening serving kifta dumplings with [Arab journalist] Eman Kassem-Sliman, atop Mount Scopus, with the view of the whole city, was quite moving for me,” he said. The recipes and stories have been collected in a lavish book; an English-language translation is forthcoming.
Opening new restaurants at such a rapid pace, Granit admitted, has had the negative effect of spreading his crew thin. “We’re always like this close to collapse. It makes things difficult for us, both management-wise and in our family lives,” said Granit, who is married and has an infant son. “But in the grand scheme of things I prefer to grow quickly and catch up later. It makes it hard to catch a breather, but I guess I don’t really like breathers all that much.”
As the Machneyuda empire expanded, offers from abroad began to pour in. While they still hope to open a New York restaurant in the not-so-distant future, the chefs preferred to start with a cosmopolitan city a bit closer to home. That Tel Aviv might be considered a nearby cosmopolitan city seems not to have occurred to them. “Tel Aviv is out of the question, it doesn’t interest us; we don’t want to be part of that swamp,” Granit said. “And besides, the Machne is essentially a Tel Aviv restaurant, with Tel Aviv customers, that happens to be based in Jerusalem.”
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