New Food in an Old Jerusalem Neighborhood

When the mayor of Jerusalem dines at the restaurant you are going to, it has to be a good sign. This was the case my first night in the holy city; as I made my way into chef Uri Navon’s Machneyuda (also spelled Mahneyuda), Mayor Nir Barkat had just finished his meal and was leaving. Based on the setting and the meal I had, what Barkat likes, I like, all politics aside.

Machneyuda has broke the mold and remains popular even though it’s one of the few non-Kosher restaurants in the area. Named after the historic Mahane Yehuda Market nearby, chef Navon opened this eatery, the first of what is now three establishments, with his partners Asaf Granit and Yossi Elad in 2009. At the time, the area was desolate in the food sense, save for the market, which has been churning out spices, fruit, baked goods, fish, and fresh meat since the end of the 19th century.

What Machneyuda brought to the neighborhood, also called Mahane Yehuda, wasn’t just a good sit-down meal, it was, and still is, a stylish place that helped bring Mediterranean food into popular culture. Each dish proved exceptionally fresh, like the ShikShuki, a creamy hummus topped with ground beef and just-cooked tomatoes that sweetly popped in the mouth. The polenta with asparagus and parmesan featured four different types of mushrooms, all native to either Israel or one of the surrounding countries. We also tried a tomato salad that sang with a crumbly, salty cheese similar to feta, and perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes that, in Israel they just call tomatoes.

As plates of lightly seared, fresh sea bass made the rounds, and tiny pots of truffle oil-laced risotto got devoured, the music spastically traded off between an electronic dance party and festive Middle Eastern beats. From the floor, you can look into the kitchen where one chef loudly drummed the pots, pans, and counters in tune to the music. At one point, half the kitchen staff and the lively host took towels and did their own, male version of the dance of the seven veils.

The décor of Machneyuda also brought a youthful vibe, even though the chef said he wanted it to feel like his grandmother’s house. This means the windows are covered in layers of heavy lace, crates of fresh vegetables line one wall, the off-white paint looks old, and the furniture is rustic and sturdy. In the bathrooms upstairs, they covered the floor in old wine crates, and the wallpaper is made up headlines, in Hebrew, from Navon’s menus, which each day changes.

The headline on the menu the night I came in was, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…” And, snow it did, starting the next day as Navon toured us around the market. By the morning, the snow had surpassed Jerusalem’s last real winter storm in 1992, making headlines around the world.

Before the storm, we kept warm at Machneyuda with bottles of Israeli wine like Trio Winery’s 2010, kosher blend of merlot and cabernet. For dessert, they serve a “Jew-York” cheesecake, which looks like pudding, and a dangerous “Snickers” that has an uber rich peanut butter mousse.

By the end of the meal, despite jet lag and coming from a 10-hour flight, Machneyuda had energized me and woke me up, eager to see what else Jerusalem and Israel has to offer.

Machneyuda: 10 Beit Yaakov St., Jerusalem, Israel; 02-5333442

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