Eyal Shani Arrives Downtown with Shmoné
The celebrity chef discusses his new opening, food as “a kind of virus”, and what he loves most about NYC.
Jerusalem-born celebrity chef Eyal Shani is as effervescent, convivial, and outrageous/swaggy as his delectable, creative Israeli and Mediterranean cuisine. A judge on his country’s edition of MasterChef, the silver curly-haired Shani heads up seventeen venues in Tel Aviv alone, and around 40 globally in cities including Paris, Melbourne, Singapore, and Vienna. He gained first NYC notoriety thanks to HaSalon, a Hell’s Kitchen sibling to Tel Aviv’s raucous original, where he really went wild both with eye-popping, wallet-draining menu items—like a $24 hydroponic tomato and $32 12-foot long pici noodle—and come 10pm when the windows are shuttered, dancing on the tables.
His creative culinary energy receives a more nuanced, chill, and intimate treatment with a delectable, daily changing menu rife with Shani’s colorful phrasing at his first downtown restaurant, 2022 opening Shmoné. An open kitchen, fire grill-driven Greenwich Village gem with a superb cocktail, mocktail and wine list, Shani and chef Nadav Greenberg serve up what the Michelin Guide calls “a focused meal that is surprisingly approachable and humble… punches way above its weight with dazzling neo-Levantine cuisine.”
Standouts from my dinner, seated at the chef’s counter, include the soft, chewy, sesame-seed crusted “Jerusalem Bagel”; transcendent olive oil and herb-blessed hamachi sashimi; tender, succulent leeks spun around a bed of ricotta; two mashed potato creations; red snapper schnitzel; and a dry-aged, grape and sage-seasoned, perfectly fired ribeye carved and served over paper.
Since opening his first NYC venue in 2018, Shani’s Gotham concepts also include the fast-casual Miznon, serving inventive fusion twists on Israeli street food (e.g. a folded cheeseburger pita) at urban food halls Chelsea Market, The Hugh, and Hudson Yards, with another coming this year to Columbia University; Hudson Yards’ Naked Tomato, specializing in two foot long, Mediterranean-influenced skewers accompanied by 20 complimentary, bottomless mezze; and full-service UWS restaurant North Miznon.
During a Zoom interview, sitting outside one of his Tel Aviv establishments—fans interrupted several times to take photos—Shani discussed Shmoné, the madness of changing up menus so frequently, his food as a virus (don’t worry, it’s not a The Last Of Us sort of zombie fungus), and what he loves most about NYC.
Lawrence Ferber: How did you end up choosing a downtown location for Shmoné?
Eyal Shani: I never choose anything in my life. The things are choosing me. There was an opportunity because of the COVID pandemic, when we thought we would close all our businesses around the globe and finish our careers and everything we did was lost. So we looked at new possibilities, and the real estate market in New York was very cheap so there was an opportunity to take this small place [a former sushi restaurant]. My NYC partners got used to huge rooms and restaurants, but they told me about it, made the budget, and I went and saw it. I said it’s such a big privilege to open a small restaurant because it’s something very intimate that has to come between you and yourself.
Does creating a new menu daily, which is the case at North Miznon and HaSalon too, ever prove to be a nightmare?
ES: I’ll tell you one thing. I want to keep my chefs and teams awake. I want them to be creative. I want them to put their soul, thought, and mind into the process. If you don’t change the menu, you repeat and repeat the same menu until the dishes are going to sleep. By changing the menu we have to work very fast, and I just tell them the main idea and story that made me create that dish. It’s alive. That’s creating a very high energy, and I need that energy for my food because it’s all about freshness, vibrancy, and being full of life. Food is a kind of virus, and I’m charging it with energy and you are swallowing, tasting, and chewing it. It’s coming into your body and melting into your blood. So I need the energy I give you to be an energy of curiosity, discovering, inventing and surprising. Therefore I change the menu.
Your menu descriptions ooze with personality, like Shmone’s mashed potatoes. “I think I managed to make a better mashed potato than [Joël] Robuchon and it’s vegan.” Those are fighting words, Eyal!
ES: It’s a joke but full of respect! First of all, cooking is like art. We’re inspiring each other, and the one who really put his finger on elevating the mashed potato, which was such a cheap and common thing, was Joël. So at the end of the day, the potatoes belong to Robuchon, but if I do it I have to compare myself to him.
I love how your cocktails and mocktails incorporate so many vegetables and herbs, which brings an earthy quality as well as intense refreshment to the meal.
For me, the vegetable is always the story and essence. In my private life I’m not drinking cocktails. I’m drinking a lot of wines, and I try to drink the best I can put my hands on. I’m not mad about cocktails, but they make people happy, the sweetness and of course the alcohol, so I try to make them as naturally as I can and the only way to do that is adding vegetables and leaves and things like that. A little taste of earth is so important for me with food as well. Each ingredient needs to tell the whole story about the place it’s coming from. Each ingredient carries its origin and memories and I have to express them.
Have many people gone to eat at HaSalon not realizing that it turns into a party zone? What’s the craziest thing that’s happened so far?
ES: Of course, a lot of people! They cannot believe it’s so expensive and so wild, with service that is not official service. They come in and go, whoah, and some think it’s a dancing restaurant and then the food is so good and they’re so surprised. In Tel Aviv when people are dancing at HaSalon it’s because suddenly they are exploding out of the energy from the food and wine and music and have no catharsis but to climb and dance! But the most crazy thing that is happening here is the menu and dishes I created. I made a 12-foot pasta, one noodle that is creating the whole plate. And the $24 tomato created such a big mess. People wanted to kill me but they didn’t stop coming to eat it. That is crazy!
What are a few NYC restaurants and dishes you love?
ES: If you’re talking about Western restaurants, the one I most like is Via Carota in the West Village, because for me there is the light of the Mediterranean there. They are using olive oil, the products are very fresh. This is the kind of restaurant I admire. From the other side, I think New York has the best Japanese restaurants when you’re talking on the high scale. That is very strange. But it’s happening because the Japanese people in NYC live between themselves in a sort of bubble. They are not making reactions to the New York people, so they are keeping their manners and traditions and way of thinking and working and expressing good food, so a lot of [great] Japanese restaurants, much more than other places in the world.
What’s a New York secret you’ve learned?
ES: New York belongs to New York. Frank Sinatra sang that if you can do it there you can do it anywhere. That is the biggest mistake. If you know how to do it in NY, you know how to do it in NY. It is so different from every other place in the world. It’s a tribe of people, they have a way to think, to talk, to eat. There is a precise distance they keep between themselves and others. When I opened North Minzon, I used to travel from 23rd street to 72nd every day by foot, put in my earphones and listen to Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and raise my head to see the top of the towers and it was like walking inside a dream. Something I most love to do in New York is go into the streets without a purpose. The best movie in the world for me. I could walk until the end of my life just watching people. So many stories behind their faces and the streets.
Will you bring more of your international concepts, like Dirty Burger, to NYC or is something brand new and original in the works? What’s next?
ES: We’re planning to open more locations of Miznon, and a kosher restaurant we have in Israel called Malka. You eat kosher food without feeling it’s kosher, it’s a very happy food. So we’re planning to open that this year. But I try to be in the moment. I’m not planning concepts. I’m planning on doing great places by being honest to the time and location.
WORDS Lawrence Ferber
PHOTOGRAPHY Max Flatow