(Bloomberg) -- Israeli chef Eyal Shani has been on an unstoppable tear. In the past few years, he’s opened a string of restaurants, bringing fresh, ingredient-focused food to markets as diverse as New York, Singapore and London.
His biggest challenge yet might be expanding in his own region.
Shani’s next stop is Dubai, where he is bringing his North Miznon brand, a Mediterranean restaurant that treats vegetables like minor gods — stars of the show in their own right, often taking up nearly half the menu. It will be his first restaurant in the Middle East outside of Israel.
The North Miznon Dubai opening will be the latest link between Israel and the United Arab Emirates since the Abraham Accords normalized relations between the countries two years ago. In the UAE, kosher restaurants have been opening for the growing (but still tiny) Jewish population, and Israeli tourists are visiting in droves. This year, through September, 146,000 Israelis visited Dubai, according to the city-emirate's Department of Economy and Tourism.
Business ties between the countries also have increased, including a free trade agreement, a controversial billion-dollar pipeline deal and some tech investments.
But cultural barriers are proving resistant to change. After an initial lukewarm reception, attitudes about the diplomatic normalization have soured in the UAE. Only 26% of Emiratis view the Abraham Accords favorably, down from 47% in November 2020, according to polling by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It remains to be seen how a country that has huge populations of Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian and Jordanian immigrants and expatriates will receive an Israeli celebrity chef.
Like many chefs, Shani says he sees food as a great uniter. “There’s no better bridge than food, because food is making a promise. What is the promise? It’s very simple,” he says in an interview. “You will sit with me and eat with me, and we shall understand each other.”
He hears warnings that he won’t get Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian customers. He says he thinks they will eat at his Dubai restaurant because he sees them in his restaurants in Israel.
Shani says he came to Dubai because a local partner made it worth his while, but he sees great meaning in the expansion in the region.
“It’s a big honor, and for me it’s a big mission,” he says. “I know one thing: that when there is food between people, there is no war and fighting between them. So for me, it’s my own act of making peace between me and my neighbors around me.”
Shani, who was born in Jerusalem, opened a restaurant there more than 30 years ago. He shot to stardom as a judge on the first season of MasterChef Israel in 2010. He’s known for thrusting the humble cauliflower into the limelight by roasting and salting it and making it a prominent menu item.
Over the past 15 years, Shani and his business partner have opened some of the trendiest restaurants in Tel Aviv, including Port Said, HaSalon and North Abraxas. Most aren’t kosher, though some are. (The Dubai restaurant will not be.) They also opened venues in such cities as New York, Miami, London, Singapore and Melbourne. A Miznon—his street food restaurant—will open in the Palazzo at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas in December.
“We have something like almost 50 restaurants,” he says. “We are not counting. We’re afraid to count it, because then you don't know how you can manage it.”
The restaurants, while usually packed, get mostly glowing reviews online, though there is mixed feedback. The negative ones cite overpriced food and say they felt rushed or ignored by servers. In Israel, North Miznon charges 109 shekels ($32) for lamb kebab and 51 shekels for spinach. The food seems simple, Shani says, but it’s far from it.
In a move that can ruffle feathers, Shani takes credit in interviews for inventing much of modern Israeli cuisine.
On his menus, which change frequently, the language can be florid. Items are described as dishes that “boil our blood with passion,” rather than the typical description of a chef’s favorite or specialty. Tomatoes have been described as “naked” and “gently butchered.” There’s the “free hand salad from the ambers of creation” and the “potato that burns in your soul.”
The Dubai menu, he says, will be heavily influenced by regional vegetables, fish and flavors, including those from India and Iran. In an interview, he raved about a scouting trip he took to Dubai. “I never saw such a huge amount—and such a big variety—of fish and freshness as I saw there,” he says. “Of course, I’m going to make the most beautiful seafood platter.”
He’ll also make a crab shawarma “floating in tomato clouds,” hummus with shrimp and butter, and the thinnest lasagna you’ve ever seen. And there will be a dish with Indian bread “that it looks like it's made out of thousands of napkins that are floating, one on top of each other.”
North Miznon is expected to open in December in the DoubleTree by Hilton Jumeirah Beach in a family-friendly area of Dubai close to a beachfront promenade.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
BNN Bloomberg Picks
What does a rate hold mean for bonds and equities?
Here's when experts think interest rates might come down
Bank of Canada rate pause: What mortgage holders should know
READ: The Bank of Canada's statement on its latest rate decision
UPDATED: A timeline of Bank of Canada rate hikes
Next six months 'will be quite a challenge': Desjardins CEO