Sunday, November 19, 2017

Touring Middle East 11: Discovery by Accident

Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem checked every boxes of the type of place I would be dying to try - one specializes in local cuisine, with open kitchen, a creative team and menu which changes daily based on seasonal ingredients sourced from the market next door, not to mention it came highly recommended by just about every travel guide/website/reviews I managed to read before the trip.

But here's the twist: we went to the restaurant before they open for dinner service one day and found out the place was fully booked for the night. Obviously I was disappointed, but then it didn't come unexpected and I thought, "Hey, c'est la vie" - with impromptu plans like this we just had to accept. Quickly looking for alternatives in the neighborhood, we spotted another place right across the street with a few staff making final preparation for dinner. And they did have seats for the five of us. Turned out this restaurant, called Yudale Bar, was under the same group as Machneyuda, and as things unfolded, this accidental find became the best meal we had in Israel.

We were sitting at a bar next door to wait for the restaurant to open when we started seeing flocks of people converging to both Machneyuda and Yudale from all directions which soon became a long waiting line outside - thank God we were just slightly before them and put our names down. The restaurant was super small and only offered counter seating, both around the open kitchen in the middle or by the window facing the street. Décor is rustic and casual, but it's relatively comfortable for us, sitting at the corner with a good view of the kitchen action.

Same as Machneyuda, menu changes daily based on ingredients available from the market, and all the dishes were prepared right at the open kitchen in front of us, which also doubled as the bar. With such setup, I was impressed with the number of dishes available, about almost 20 listed on the menu with rather eccentric description like “Polenta OMG” or “Fatush Salad – Back from the future”, that stirred up our curiosity.

We seriously tried to “sweep the menu” but I think we barely got half at the end. The grilled sweet potato was just that – the whole piece grilled on open-fire with the skins and served with fresh cream, black pepper and honey on the side, but it’s mind-blowingly good for something that looked so ordinary. It’s fresh, sweet, perfectly seasoned, grilled with the right soft texture and all.

The "Polenta OMG" with mushrooms, asparagus, parmesan and truffle oil certainly fit the description. It’s their signature item and the one we saw on the stove as they were preparing for the dinner service earlier (which convinced us to come in in the first place). Just one scoop of polenta, one scoop of mushroom ragu each from separate pots, then topped with grilled baby asparagus, a touch of truffle oil and lots of shaven parmesan. Let’s just say it’s the best polenta dish I have ever had, period.

We got the “Fish balls, of fish without balls who live above sea level” totally because of the description which sounds like a riddle. Whatever that is (we still don’t know), it tasted great with the soft mashed fish cake with braised eggplants, pumpkins puree and crème fraiche.

The open kitchen was manned by 3 persons who also doubled as bartenders from time to time. We asked their head chef Asaf Serri for recommendations and among a few he mentioned, he pointed us to the “shula sashimi” dish. To be honest at first we hesitated at ordering a sashimi dish in this part of the world, but after seeing it being served to almost every single party around us, we were convinced and got one ourselves. It’s nothing like what we have expected at first and it was nice, with the thick slices of raw fish (which looks like yellowtail) served with sprinkle of paprika, slices of fresh figs, drizzle of olive oil and bits of deep-fried kale and grapefruits. It’s indeed da bomb with so many flavor and texture all presented in one dish.

With the playlist that resembles one from a nightclub, as the evening progresses the volume just turned up and up, with everyone singing, standing up from their chair and danced, and chefs beating to the rhythm using breadsticks or whatever they got hold of inside the kitchen while cooking. It was just phenomenal – reminded me of Burnt Ends Singapore in terms of atmosphere and the food served but only even livelier and bolder in flavor.

Most of the dishes were top-notch but if I had to name one we didn’t like as much, it would be the octopus and falafels served with freshly-baked pita. We just couldn’t get a break for any decent falafels during this trip, unfortunately. Afterwards we had a few more dishes to share, including “Beef Carpaccio returns from the beyond with Artichoke and Parmesan” (served on a silver platter), “Beets on cream, asparagus, mascarpone and chilled almonds” and the “Entrecote with potato, bone marrow, wine sauce and lots of love” (yes we could totally feel it), and the “Shrimps on flames, yummy yummy yummy I got shrimps in my tummy” (which looked a bit charred but tasted great, just grilled on the stove on naked fire with the bamboo net underneath)

Looking back I did regret not able to get to the desserts, but looking at the portion served to our neighbor at the bar counter there’s not a chance five of us could even share one. We went with 2 wines, from 2 local wineries that I have never tried. Both traditional varietal (Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon) and both solid, going well with the dishes.

We just had so much fun – and there you have it, in case you can’t get a table at Machneyuda, try this one across the street. Actually, scratch that, if I had a choice on either I probably will still come to Yudale for the amazing vibe and get up-close-and-personal with the cooking action right in front of us.

When? October 9 2017
Where? Yudale Bar, Beit Ya'akov St 11, Jerusalem, Israel
Menu Highlights? Polenta OMG with mushrooms, asparagus, parmesan and truffle oil 
2016 Shvo Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Upper Galilee, Israel
2013 Clos de Gat Har'el Cabernet Sauvignon, Judean Hills, Israel
Web: (Machneyuda)

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