Israeli chef Eyal Shani brings Tel Aviv vibe to Dubai Marina

Newly opened North Miznon introduces such culinary innovations as octopus shishlik and ‘whole animal artichoke’ to Emirati restaurant scene

North Miznon

Israeli chef Eyal Shani at his North Miznon restaurant

Eyal Shani, an evangelist for introducing Israeli cuisine to an international audience, says he feels liberated in Dubai.

“I can bring tomatoes and cucumbers from Lebanon, I can bring yogurt from Damascus, beautiful fruits and vegetables from Iran, cheeses from Iraq, and amazing fish from the Gulf – all the treasures of the East and West,” Shani, who opened a branch of his expanding North Miznon restaurant franchise in Dubai’s yacht-packed Marina district in December, said in an interview with The Circuit.

In Jerusalem, where Shani, 64, was born, the produce markets are still limited by political barriers with several of Israel’s neighbors. But in the United Arab Emirates, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords, the entire Middle East is accessible to his constant hunt for fresh and inspiring ingredients.

That has enabled the chef to create unconventional seafood dishes such as octopus shishlik, grouper shawarma and an item he calls “Journey into the Head of a Lokus,” which features a fish known in the U.S. as Dusky grouper bass. Among the many vegetable dishes on the menu are beetroot carpaccio, served with white horseradish snow and sour cream on the side; sabich 2.0,  described as an eggplant steak on a “storm of tomato and tahini with a spicy boiled egg”; and “whole animal artichoke.” The menu changes daily and sometimes includes the dish he became famous for in Israel, a full head of roasted cauliflower massaged with olive oil.

The Dubai restaurant, whose open kitchen allows diners to watch the chefs at work, is located in the Doubletree by Hilton-Jumeirah Beach hotel. It is Shani’s first in an Arab country, although his empire of nearly 50 locations includes various iterations in New York, London, Paris, Singapore, Vienna and Melbourne, Australia. In Israel, where Shani is a celebrity judge on the television show “Master Chef,” his Miznon chain became popular in Tel Aviv by serving unique dishes in freshly baked pita and paper bags. The North Miznon brand is more upscale.

“He is trying to bring the Israeli spirit and vibe,” Michal Divon, an Israeli journalist and television host working in Dubai for the UAE’s Khaleej Times newspaper, told The Circuit. “It’s the first proper Israeli establishment with an international name and reputation and can introduce people to what Israel is all about.”

Among other Israeli chefs who have opened restaurants around the world are Yotam Ottolenghi, Assaf Granit and Meir Adoni. Dubai has nine restaurants with Michelin stars and the list of superstar chefs who have branches in the city include London’s Gordon Ramsay, Hong Kong’s Alvin Leung and Pierre Gagnaire from Paris.

It was growing up in Jerusalem that led to Shani’s interest in Arab culture. He remembers as a child the fence that divided the city into Israeli and Arab sections and stirred his fascination with the other side, which was ruled by Jordan. After the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israelis were allowed to enter East Jerusalem and Shani found that interest in food was a way of bridging differences. He says having a restaurant in the Gulf is the fulfillment of a dream.

“In Israel we have two main borders. One is a border to the west – the Mediterranean Sea – and one is a border to the east,” said Shani, who cultivates the persona of a philosopher-chef with a gray beard and unruly head of hair. “The border to the west leads to Europe and the U.S., and the border to the east leads to all the Middle Eastern countries. That border was closed to us. Opening a restaurant in Dubai was a chance to go through that gate.”

Shani never visited the UAE until after signing a contract to open the restaurant. He was preceded by more than half a million Israelis who flocked to the small Gulf country in the wake of the Abraham Accords. With native Emiratis constituting barely 11.5% of the UAE’s population, the rest are expatriates who represent 200 different nationalities and create a vibrant cultural and culinary scene.

“Dubai is an unreal place,” he said. “You look and say to yourself maybe it’s a show or an illusion that they built especially for you – the big houses, the big buildings, the highways in the middle of one of the [toughest] deserts in the world. It can’t exist but it does.”

Shani works with a group of local partners who persuaded him to open the franchise in Dubai, including restaurant entrepreneur Alberto Barbieri.

“The simplicity of the food is welcome in a place where there are so many people trying to outdo each other,” Barbieri told The Circuit, adding that Shani “goes to the fish market and the menu is prepared based on what he finds there.”

Barbieri said North Miznon is just the first Eyal Shani restaurant his business group hopes to open. There are already Dubai plans for Miznon and HaSalon – a ritzier franchise the chef created that has a reputation for prompting guests to start dancing on the table. Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s more conservative capital, is also a target location.

Among Shani’s dozens of restaurants, only two are kosher and the one in Dubai is decidedly not. But some observant Jews living in the city got a chance to taste some North Miznon’s popular dishes in March when the kitchen was temporarily made kosher during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

“For the first time we have genuine top-of-the-line Israeli cuisine in Dubai, and it’s a sign of the normalization of Jewish life in Dubai,” said Ross Kriel, founder of Kosher Arabia, a catering operation that prepares meals for airlines and hotels. “It was very exciting that for the first time we were able to enjoy a kosher version of his menu in Dubai including his tomato mosaic and his famous cauliflower,” Kriel told The Circuit.

Shani says his audience is global and he would like to attract anyone in the Middle East who wants to help Jews and Arabs move beyond their conflicts.

“I’m doing my food for the hearts of the people and for uniting them together,” Shani said. “The first thought I had when I decided to do the restaurant is that I have a chance to show people we are coming for peace.”

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