By Danielle Frum
You all know about farm-to-table restaurants — but imagine a place situated right beside a famous market, where the dishes land on your table as if straight from the food stands themselves.
This captures a little bit what it’s like to dine at Jerusalem’s beloved Machneyuda restaurant, which sits on the outskirts of the Mahane Yehuda market or shuk. The shuk is a vast, covered emporium selling not just produce and meat but spices, 100 kinds of halva, and practically every type of regional ethnic home cooking you can imagine — from Iraqi to Georgian to even Kurdish fusion.
Machneyuda (the name derives from the local mumbled pronounciation of Mahane Yehuda) takes its inspiration from the market in every way. The moment you enter the narrow, two-story restaurant, you are accosted by noise, elbows, and flying trays. It’s maybe the most crowded but most energized restaurant I’ve ever been in.
On the evening I visit, I’m led through bustling tables to a seat at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen. I quickly realize I’ve landed a front-row seat at an amazingly choreographed, if chaotic, dinner theater production: grinning kitchen staff balancing dishes above their heads weave in and out of darting chefs with the skill of chorus girls descending a staircase. There are shouts, spontaneous dancing, and even the occasional burst of song as frying pans are shaken, food is plated, and dishes tossed into sinks.
My bar seat is shoved up near a window facing the street. Suddenly the window opens — it turns out to be a door — and my waiter materializes beside me, offering bread and water. The restaurant is too full for him to reach me except by exiting the building and going around it. His name is Michael; he informs me cheerfully that the chef on duty — Eliezer Mizrahi — is going to start sending me whatever he feels like. This seems agreeable. Michael figures out what wine I’ll like (a 2010 red blend by Clos de Gat, in Israel’s Ayalon Valley — he’s right), and my own personal dinner show begins.
Machneyuda was founded in 2009 by three (now) celebrity chefs — Uri Navon, Assaf Granit, and Yossi Elad. As well as taking their culinary inspiration from the market, they also did so aesthetically. In the center of the restaurant is a fresh produce stand. Dishes are served as they might be passed to you over the counter of a stall: on platters, sometimes on wax paper, and even in a mason jar. When the restaurant opened, the chefs were asked what type of food they planned to serve. They replied “happy food.” And indeed it’s very happy.
My first plate arrives: three types of ceviche — tuna, white Spanish mackerel, and drumfish. They are plated on an antique silver tray, each separated and nestled in its own bespoke seasonings and garnish: The tuna is the simplest, with a ginger vinaigrette and ponzu; the mackerel comes with a fatoosh salad, lebneh and sumac; the drumfish, more exotically, is served with a black tahina, chestnuts, charred eggplant and Jerusalem artichoke chips.
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of ceviche, let alone one composed of fish as fishy as mackerel and drumfish. Yet I’m instantly chagrined by my hesitation to dig in. It’s maybe the best tuna crudo of my life — velvety tender with a sweet, citrusy flavor. The drum fish (which I’ve never tasted raw) is so fresh it melts into its surroundings, and I enjoy a mouthful of oceany, crunchy, charred deliciousness. The mackerel is even creamier if possible, and enhanced by the lebneh.
The tray is removed and I’m in now full bring-it-on mode, which is a good way to be at Machneyuda.
As if to challenge the fish, three types of raw beef appear — tartar, tataki, and carpaccio — these plated on a wood carving board. Like the fish, each type is paired with an original rendering of seasoning and garnishes that are unexpected yet perfectly suited (from mango and oregano with the tataki, to hot pepper and three cheeses with the tartar). This really is the surprise and magic of every dish I was to be served at Machneyuda.
Following this was one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: soft polenta with parmesan, asparagus, wild mushrooms and truffle oil, served in a mason jar.
From left to right clockwise: Ceviche three ways; sea bass; Danielle starring in the kitchen with Mizrahi (right); the deconstructed beef kofta.
The chef pauses in his choreographed dance to warn me that I should only eat 1/2 the serving, as he has many more dishes to come. It’s hard to restrain myself as the buttery polenta is so delicious — and also so completely … Italian. Why suddenly Italian here in the Jerusalem market? Who knows? Who cares?
Whatever, it pleasingly breaks up the rhythm of Middle Eastern/Jewish fusion, which returns with the next onslaught of dishes: Octopus with a white potato haroset-chimichurri sauce; a chopped beef “kabob” with tahina and mini pita — a deconstructed version of classic market kofta. I could eat a bucket of this one. But no time: here comes sea bass with onion, garlic, mushrooms, and a cauliflower gremolata … two types of lamb … fried cauliflower and roasted beets … I begin making gestures for mercy from the chef.
He is too busy to notice. In snatches of conversation, Mizrahi has told me that he spent 10 years as an army chef — but here in the kitchen, he is clearly a full commander. He keeps the line cooks on task and the plates of food marching out on time, his restless body never pausing for even a moment. The only time I can get Mizrahi to break for just a second is to pose in a photo with me. It’s annoying for him, I can tell — but he obliges. He pulls in one of the cooks who hands me a frying pan and urges me to play it like a tambourine. I’m now a bit player in the kitchen show!
I return to my stool for — dear God — dessert. I basically take a little forkful here and there: a lemon tart with meringue and burnt coconut; banana cream pie w (strong!) coffee ice cream; and some clever deconstructed version of a Twix bar. All yummy but de trop at this point.
Michael is there to help me exit the restaurant, which I appreciate. After all the food and wine I feel like a wobbly toddler trying to cross a freeway at rush hour. The madness at Machneyuda will continue all night, night after night. Outside the street is empty, except for my waiting taxi. I cast a glance back at the glowing restaurant window. Already I miss it. I feel as if I’ve left a great party too early — and wonder how soon I may return again.