NEW YORK — On a Friday morning, Manhattan’s Chelsea Market is still empty. The few people inside are here either for a quick coffee to go, or because they work in one of the eateries, preparing for the very busy lunch hours ahead.
Chef Eyal Shani is new to this club. He sits at one of the wooden tables of his new Miznon restaurant, an espresso in hand, as the staff, who arrived an hour earlier, are already in the kitchen lining up trays of perfectly round cauliflower.
“Good morning,” he tells his cooks as they walk by, occasionally chatting for a few minutes.
Miznon in Tel Aviv — for which Shani remembers writing the pita-centric menu in four minutes the night before the opening — has already become an institution. Over the past five years, branches have opened in Paris, Vienna and Melbourne. Now it’s New York’s turn.
The space itself feels like an upscale Israeli falafel stand: industrial concrete walls on which the menu is written in chalk, exposed vents, empty vegetable baskets scattered around and multi-colored pennant string hanging above one table.
On one side of the eatery is a large opening towards the inside of Chelsea Market, which overflows with tourists and Google employees at lunch time. At the back, one small clear glass door offers an exit directly onto 15th street. That door, Shani says, is his opening to conquering the Big Apple.
“At first, when I saw Chelsea Market, I told myself I don’t want to be inside a mall, I don’t want to be inside a food court, I want to be in the street, I came to work in the street,” he said. “And then they showed me that opening, to the street, and I understood that this is amazing: From there I will conquer the city and from [Chelsea Market] I will get the people.”
Shani first dreamed of an endeavor in New York City back in the 1990s, when Israel was dealing with the chaos of the First Intifada. In times of great despair, he was offered the opportunity of opening a restaurant downtown, in Tribeca.
Shani was in the final stages of opening when, one day, he made the fateful decision to back out.
“I felt that there would be no room for my creativity, I wasn’t going to be given the freedom to do what I wanted,” he said. “After that, I didn’t want New York anymore. I didn’t understand it the way I do today, but in my senses, New York stopped attracting me.”
Getting back to Israel and forgetting New York for a while, Shani tells The Times of Israel, gave him the space to do what he wanted within the Israeli food scene. He played with the molds, constantly trying to break them, with the goal of “making a mess and seeing what happens.” That’s how the idea of putting his food inside pitas came about, and Miznon was born.
Today he is back in New York with a fresh take — and a better sense of identity.
As the first customers begin placing their lunch orders, Shani steps into the kitchen, wearing his white coat and a baseball cap, and begins lining fluffy pitas with aioli before filling them with meat, vegetables and three oval slices of pickle.
Although much of the menu is the same as you’ll find in Tel Aviv, he has made some adjustments to New York: the shrimp in pita has become a lobster in pita, a new folded hamburger pita offers an Israeli take on an American classic, and the Reuben Pita acts as a tribute to the local Jewish community.
“[Israeli food] is stormy,” said Shani. “Here, you go to a restaurant, you can eat very well but, and I’m not sure how to explain this, nothing really happens beyond the moment where the food touches your body, nothing is happening when it goes into your blood.
“The hygiene grade A that you see in the front of restaurants here promises you that nothing will happen to your body by eating this food, but I think it also promises you that nothing will happen to your soul,” he said.
That is Shani’s stated goal: surprise people to the point of dreaming of his pitas at night.
One of the first to order that day was Cindy Zhou, an Instagram food influencer with over 55,000 followers, known online as Chubby Chinese Girl Eats.
Zhou has been wanting to try Miznon for a while now. The last time she was in Paris she wasn’t able to go, so when she heard Shani was opening in New York, there was no way she was going to miss it.
“We have pita and stuff here but I had heard that this was another level,” she said, slowly separating the parchment paper wrap from her pita. “So far, I think it’s really good. It’s different than what we have. It’s more ingredient-driven and visually more appealing.”
“I think we are having a moment with Israeli food, people are open to it,” Zhou added.
An expat Israeli foodie minute
New York’s love story with Israeli food has reached a peak over the past few years. Many Israeli-born chefs have made their way to Manhattan. Just last year, celebrity chef Meir Adoni opened his restaurant Nur on 20th street, reservations for which still need to be made a month in advance.
Just steps away from Miznon inside Chelsea Market, another Israeli counter has been making waves. Opened by the acclaimed Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, Dizengoff is a Tel Aviv-inspired Hummus joint, serving side salads, hummus, pitas and even the popular mint-lemonade “limonana.”
Solomonov, who already has 10 restaurants in the US, including the famous Zahav in Philadelphia, begun his career washing trays at a small bakery on Weizmann street in Kfar Saba, to which he was attracted by the smell of freshly baked bourekas.
“A few months after that I got a job cooking at a place called Coffee Tree. I would make ‘toast’ [grilled cheese] and pasta,” he recalled.
Little by little Solomonov moved up the cooking chain. He ended up back in the US, cooking in a French and then Italian restaurant. During that time, his younger brother David was serving in the IDF in Israel.
“We were living very different lives,” he said. “In 2003, right before his release, he was given a vacation that coincided with my vacation from the Italian restaurant, so I flew in to Israel and we hung out for a few weeks and we connected after not living in the same country for four years.”
That vacation was the last time Solomonov saw his brother. Shortly after, the call came: David had been killed in action near the Lebanese border.
“That sort of changed the course of my life,” Solomonov said. “The idea of reconnecting to Israel through one way or another was relevant and pertinent. It’s really strange how tragedy brings you back to things that are in your heart and in your soul.”
Weeks later, he decided to travel to his brother’s former base in Metula and cook for the entire unit, as a way to pay tribute to him.
“At that moment something changed within me: I knew that in order to become closer to my brother and tell the story of Israel, I needed to cook Israeli food,” he explained. “I found myself in a way. My mission is not just to cook Israeli food — it’s to represent Israel, and the vehicle to that is food.”
Before opening the first branch of Dizengoff in Philadelphia, Solomonov wasn’t sure of the American public’s response to something that Israelis consider an everyday food.
“It hasn’t been hard to explain — people gravitate towards it,” he said. “I think everybody loves hummus.”
The success of Israeli cooking in the US, Solomonov said, has multiple explanations.
“Right now it’s really trendy in the States to have small plates like tapas in Spanish restaurants and also, [Israeli food] represents so many different cultures, so it’s very stimulating to a country like America because it’s a melting pot, a tapestry of many cultures also. It’s the same thing,” he said.
“The idea that Israeli food is now global and it speaks to a larger audience is what makes it modern and it’s a responsibility for us to take it from just being food to something greater,” he added.
Solomonov’s dream is to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv someday, but that, he said, will be a different challenge because the restaurant industry is much different there.
“There is very little patience and a lot of pressure,” he said, half in Hebrew, half in English.
Less ‘balagan’ in America
The rules of the game are indeed different in Israel and in New York. Shani, who has been in the city setting up for the opening of Miznon for the past couple of months, said he noticed that here, “it’s easy to maintain a certain level because of the system.”
“Everything is organized, like the city itself, in a grid. Each person is responsible for one square and it’s easy to run things,” he explained. “In Israel, every day you look up at the sky and start from scratch. On the one hand it slows down your growth but on the other hand it gives you an opportunity to grow without limits.”
In Israel, Shani feeds some 3,500 people in his restaurants every day. Although he has made a name for himself and is even starring on a reality TV show, that is still “a daily challenge.”
“Here, the fear of the moment does not exist,” he told The Times of Israel. “I’m used to fighting for the day, for the minute. [In Israel], I only look at the present moment: it’s a matter of life or death. If one day there are less people, it can feel like everything is lost.”
In New York, he said, “as long as it is managed right, [your restaurant] can live forever. It doesn’t mean that as long as you are creative, it will.”
The long term thinking is new to Shani. Back home, the equipment used at his restaurants is of the type that he knows will last three to four years, because uncertainty reigns. But for this Miznon, he has invested in longer-lasting machinery.
Even so, Shani is not one to need a sense of security. He thrives on risk, constantly trying to tear down the walls of tradition.
“In Israel, I do everything I can to create mutations within myself, I go very far to break down my own molds,” he said. “I don’t think that New York is going towards mutations, but rather towards praising its own genes, investing in what’s already there.
“I think that coming here as a genetic system that produces mutations, has the potential to change the DNA of this city,” he continued. “And that’s my dream, that’s the big reason why I came here: to try to take the genes out of their comfort zone, shake things up.”