THE FELLOW TAKING MY ORDER at the Miznon counter asks whether I like the music on the restaurant’s sound system. “It’s fine,” I say.
“I feel we can do better than just ‘fine’. What sort of music do you want?”
“I like jazz.” He scrolls through the music library on his iPad. “How about Janis Joplin?”
“Janis Joplin is good, and she starts with a J, like jazz. Ok.”
As soon as my tailor-made playlist starts booming, the kitchen staff begin to dance and sing along, one hitting a tambourine which she soon swaps for an air guitar.
Welcome to Miznon Melbourne, the latest incarnation of the famed Tel Aviv eatery which has brought Israeli street food to the world stage. It’s one of a number of restaurants created by the flamboyant Eyal Shani, chef and TV celebrity who shot to national fame as a judge on Israel’s MasterChef.
Melbourne has the honour of being only the third Miznon to open outside of Israel, after Shani went international in 2013, establishing a kosher-style Miznon in the Jewish Marais area of Paris; Vienna followed two years later. Yet another outpost of the Shani empire is set to be drawing in the crowds late next month in Manhattan’s Chelsea Markets.
Melbournians can consider themselves lucky to have scored a Miznon. The city – indeed, the country – didn’t figure in the original plans.
Ever since Yotam Ottolenghi became a household name, Israeli food has been the latest dining fashion, after years in the shadows of other Middle-Eastern cuisines. Whether Miznon is riding that wave of popularity, or indeed, propelling it, the venture is going gangbusters. Even at the new Melbourne venture, which only opened in late August, the word is already out. When I visit, an enthusiastic queue snakes out the door, and a staffer walks along the line of people, offering them pomegranate cordial while they wait.
If you haven’t yet experienced the Miznon formula, here’s what you can expect: Seriously delicious food. Lots of vegetables. Simple presentation. Almost everything served in a pita or paper bag. Casual ambience and the buzz of people having fun.
OK, so you need a bit more information? Try these menu items for size (I did): ratatouille, wagyu and roots stew, sac du coq, ‘a warm egg inside your hand’, bag of golden meat, merlan fish spicy tomato, bag of green beans, baby cauliflower. That last one is a signature dish. The one dessert option is strawberries, banana and sour cream – served in a pita, of course.
There are no plates, so meat juices and dressings will run down your hands. You will get messy.
Melbournians can consider themselves lucky to have scored a Miznon. The city – indeed, the country – didn’t figure in the original plans, according to Jonathan Lazarovits, director of Miznon Australia.
“It all came about because of a chance meeting with Eyal Shani whilst we were travelling. When my father met up with Eyal, he said, you have to come to Melbourne and visit it. He did, and he fell in love with the place.’
Lazarovits and his father, Ron, became friends with Shani, before partnering with him on the Manhattan project. While preparations were underway, Lazarovits senior approached the company owner, Shahar Segal, and said, “I have a location. Shall we open a Miznon in Melbourne?”
Having the location was one thing, but Lazarovits’s enthusiasm alone wasn’t going to be enough to get Melbourne over the line. There needed to be someone in the kitchen who could reliably bring Miznon’s DNA to the Antipodes.
Enter chef Afik Gal, who has been at the launch of every new Miznon, at home and abroad: “Shahar came to me and said, ‘Look, I don’t know what to do in Australia. You’re the only person I trust to have the know-how to do it on his own. If you want to take your family to Australia… don’t expect any of us to come. You’re on your own.’”
Gal, who’d never been over here, agreed to the move, and that’s how Australia pipped New York at the post.
FOR A RESTAURANT PREDICATED ON PITAS, you’d imagine that getting the very best supplier would be of paramount importance. And it was.
“The pita was a good two or three months of getting it right,” according to Lazarovits. “We worked with a bakery in Northcote which has a lovely story to it. It’s made by a Turkish bakery with a Muslim background. And we kind of like to think that we’ve brought a few people together, solely through our pita development. Afik and Eyal and the chefs at the bakery went through the recipe with a fine-tooth comb and everything was made to be just like it is.”
“Just like it is” turns out to be the most wonderful soft pillow of pita which makes the perfect receptacle and accompaniment for anything that the kitchen stuffs in. But don’t bother trying to chase the pita back to the source. It’s made expressly for Miznon, “only because we are a bit selfish like that,” says Lazarovits. “We want to welcome you, all of our customers.”
Apart from the pitas and the cauliflower, the menu at each Miznon has something of the local cuisine. Paris, for example, has a boeuf bourguignon. Lazarovits reckons that his menu is roughly 80% unique to Melbourne – by way of example, he mentions the wagyu steak burger, the calamari and a prawn pita.
On my next visit, the prawn has been taken off the menu, because Gal’s supplier has only frozen prawns and he won’t use anything but fresh produce. He hopes to set up relationships with local farmers, just as Miznon Israel has done, so that his vegetables will be the very best available and brought to the restaurant at their peak. In that way, vegetables picked on the farm at 4am in the morning can be served to Miznon customers for lunch on the same day.
When the raw ingredients are so good, Gal believes you give them centre stage. There’s no reason to trick them up with spices and sauces. Mineral-rich Atlantic sea salt and peppercorns crushed fresh daily are the only spices in the kitchen.
While Gal, a Cordon Bleu graduate, obviously knows what he’s doing after so many years in Miznon’s kitchens, how does he convey this to the rest of the kitchen staff who must prepare his dishes? According to Lazarovits, “we don’t have recipes; we have stories.” He goes on to tell me the story of the seven beans in a bag, with each bean species coming from a different part of Victoria. “So the idea is let’s bring all of the people together. The chef describes it as each pod is like its own little atmosphere, its own little ecosystem.”
Narratives might be nice, but how will that help the cooks prepare without written instructions? Lazarovits smiles: “Our people have been handing down rules and laws for quite a while.”
Whatever the secret, it’s working. Critics have been falling over themselves to sing the praises of Miznon’s food. The Age’s Dani Valent awarded it 5 out of 5 stars, and talked of “Miznon magic”.
That magic is more than just excellent food. (Lazarovits goes as far as to say it’s as good as a Michelin-starred restaurant – “that’s what we’ve been aiming for”.) It’s about the celebration of food and the feeling of being included in a very special party.
Having received such a warm Aussie welcome, might they be opening more restaurants in our other states?
Lazarovits is cryptic. “Would a Miznon in Sydney, Brisbane or Canberra look the same as it does here? I don’t know.”
We can only hope that we get a chance to find out.
Main photo: Chef Afik Gal with cauliflower (Melbourne photos by Aviva Lowy); photo of Eyal Shani: Nimrod Sonders