In the past 15 years Jerusalem has changed. And not for better. It's become religious and suffocating to a point that secular population is finding the atmosphere increasingly intolerable. And its restaurant scene hasn't exactly wowed with its flair, either.
Since my last trip, however, things have changed. At least when it comes to restaurants. I have changed, too, mind you, and no longer even attempt to keep kosher (oy, vey). One of the most welcome changes has been the renaissance of Mahane Yehuda market, where I'll take you a little bit later. These days the area around it is heaving with great small restaurants, to which the shabby chic neighbourhood lends an invariably hipsterish feel.
Machneyuda is the most legendary one and for a reason. I fell in love with their sister restaurant Palomar already during my Taste of London excursion. Palomar, much like Machneyuda, draws inspiration from all things Mediterranean and Middle Eastern - what's not to love!
The exposed brick walls, eclectic combination of furniture, mismatched cutlery, wine list scribbled at the back of a notebook and music so loud my ears must be permanently scarred by now all speak in volumes of the trendiness of this place. Since they opened in 2009 the waiting list has been longer than Moses' years in the wilderness (see, my sense of direction is impeccably Jewish!).
It very quickly becomes obvious why. I mean, just look at the cocktail menu.
Everything hear is like straight out of Hipster restaurants 101, but the atmosphere and its coziness is authentic. The staff likes it here. As do the customers (if their dancing at their tables is anything to go by).
This place is fun. Crazy fun.
Founded my culinary giants such as Assaf Granite, Yossi Elad and Uri Navon, one of the highlights of this place is the open kitchen and the show they put on is unbelievably entertaining.
Jerusalem, combined with the chefs' diverse ethnic backgrounds and rich culinary traditions, the materials sourced at the nearby market and local producers all come together in an explosion of glorious, intense flavours the memory of which will has you cooing weeks afterwards.
They call it gourmet in disguise. Their dream was to serve happy food and my, that they've nailed.
A whole lot of magic happens in this kitchen. Cooking, yes, and the occasional jam session as one of the chefs whips out his drum sticks and lets those pans have it.
There's talking and laughing with the punters...
... and most importantly - crazy good food. You. Just. Wait.
Being greedy (and dining alone) I of course went for the tasting menu (265 NIS = 56 €).
To start with I was given some bread (yes, they make it themselves) and tahini.
Now, tahini is not something I've ever understood (though I'd never even dream of saying that out loud unless I'm a good 5-hour-flight away from Israel). Well, I never did until I tasted theirs. So sublimely rich and mellow - like peanut butter.
(Yes, I scraped every last bit of it using my fingers. After which I promptly licked the bowl, too.)
Then it was off to the trio of fish starters. Deep-fried, in tartare and Lord knows what else. Dipped in divinity? Coated in gorgeousness?
The trio of meat starters featured one of their legendary dishes: shawarma tartare.
As the tasting menu was going to feature "pretty much everything we make here", I went along with the waiter's recommendation and had some Austrian Pinot Noir rosé, the name of which I seem to have misplaced. A great wine that carried through the entire foodie fiesta.
Next up was another one of their classics: polenta with mushroom, asparagus and truffle oil, but this one I didn't warm to for two reasons.
I did mention I do not do cheese, but the message had perhaps not reached the kitchen as I found myself fishing out strands of half-molten Parmesan. The coarse texture of the polenta also reminded me of semolina porridge which is something I've vehemently disliked since childhood.
Then we moved on to bigger fish. This was accompanied by all sorts of Mediterranean lovelies, from pesto to tapenade.
The way it was served to parties of more than one person was quite a spectacle in itself: in a way that reminded me of 3Pavaru restaurant in Riga the sauces were splashed onto these huge sheets, followed by a round of shots with the chef...
... who then burst into a song. No, the credibility of my memories is not compromised by too many shots - that's genuinely what this place is like.
Customer service is not something Israel has done terribly well in the past (it's the only country where I've been first served wrong dish, questioned about whether I even remember what I ordered, had them forget to serve me the next dish and then had the waiter come after me on the street shouting about how I didn't tip them), but that's another thing I was glad to see had changed. At Machneyuda it rocked - from the girls who greeted me at the door to, well, everyone.
And yes, a couple of them even came over, offered me a shot and joined me for a round and a chat. ( I told you - crayzeee!)
One of my absolute favourites was this dish: succulent lamb dish which also featured some bone marrow.
Next I was served a taster of their Crazy Mushroom Risotto.
The names of the dishes are a hoot: "I'd like to be under the sea, in an octopus garden with you" sounded so inviting I was ready to abandon my plan to make my way through the tasting menu.
But boy, am I glad I didn't as...
...BOOYAKASHA! Baruch Hashem! What do you thing was up next? Well the very octopus garden!
Served with sweet potato the octopus had been cooked with spices and herbs and then grilled, resulting in a dreamily tender tentacles. Yes, I'd move into the octopus garden anytime. I can tell you my appreciation for The Beatles reached an unprecedented level (the name is from one of their songs, FYI)
The last main (or the first dessert? Who can tell!) was the most bizarre dish of the meal.
Yes, that's steak. And possibly foie gras. And as I understand, some red wine sauce. But yes, there's also a berry muffin and strawberries (?)
The tasting menu was certainly more than I bargained for. No frou frou here - occasionally I wasn't sure I'd make it to the end of the meal with just one stomach. But I'm glad to report that I did. I even managed to devour the delightful deconstructed desserts.
Together with a glass of wine the total came to €89, including tip. Bang for your buck? Hell, yes and then some.
Machneyuda was the first restaurant to make it on my "to do" list and you can count on it, it will be there on my next trip too.
A restaurant? A circus? Or just something you imagined? At times it can be difficult to tell - Machneyuda is that crazy. But luckily, it's crazy good.