There’s no website. There’s no phone number. There’s no sign on the door. Even its most frequent guests are known to ask, “Wait, what’s that place again?”
“I guess we’re not doing anyone any favors with the name,” says Chef/Owner Conor Shemtov.
Mh Zh, which literally means, “What is it?” in Hebrew, turned a year old last month. In just a year, the spot has captured the imaginations of L.A.’s East Siders—a people often on pilgrimage for a rare kind of dining that fuels well, prices well, and glimmers in a way that’s just the tiniest bit, well…off.
Mh Zh’s tilt could be its sidewalk seating. The restaurant sits atop one of Sunset Boulevard’s grandest curves. Palm trees jut out of broken concrete and lean toward the moon. You can see the Hollywood sign from your candlelit seat. Chairs are metal, wobbly, and dully multi-colored. Each looks as if it’s seen one-too-many days in an angry artist’s studio. Tables are tiny two-tops, save one long slab of wood “built by a buddy” that runs up a steep hill and accommodates larger parties.
Menus are handwritten in black Sharpie, sometimes inconsistently. Herbs and garnish are grown onsite in big steel barrels. Walk by and you might hear live music. (A band recorded an album during a dinner rush once.) Employees will breeze past with a vague, worldly sparkle—their eyes reading kind, humble, and as if they’ve just seen an outdoor concert in Budapest.
The details coalesce into something magical, leaving guests smiling and coming back. Shemtov, 26, a first-time restaurateur, is nervous to acknowledge any strategy behind the atmosphere.
“Today especially, every facet of every restaurant…is controlled in some way,” says Shemtov. “But you can only control so much. As much as we wanted to bring (mhzh) into existence, we didn’t do anything specific to bring it into existence. You know what I mean?”
Feast in the Middle East
What could be luck for Mh Zh’s vibe, however, is strict curation for its food. Mh Zh’s shareable dishes are succulent swirls of sweet and sour. Lemons are charred black and the hummus, a must-order, rolls in brown butter. In it, pickled golden raisins battle with chickpeas for the attention of your dipping bread. Some say it tastes a bit like caramel.
Other popular dishes include the warm and spicy ful (beans), and the potatoes, both sweet and otherwise. They’re flamed ‘til crisp, doused in oil, and double as scooping sticks for anything in your radius.
Ingredients are sourced from local farms and markets. If you’re interested, the Mh Zh Instagram is a good place to see from where exactly the raw materials originate. (Oh, and there’s also a screenshot of a David Byrne and Brian Eno song.)
Mh Zh is light on meat. Show up too late, and you might miss out on one of the most popular items: a juicy, salty ribeye steak. No worries if that happens. You can pluck your way through a fresh branzino, an effort that might ignite a craving for a Mediterranean sabbatical.
The lack of meat is a bit of a moot point in L.A.. If you prefer the look of it, Mh Zh does offer a braised cabbage special that kinda reads like a pot roast. The cabbage is one of a few full-sized vegetables that the chefs morph into delectable, peelable plates.
In discussing Mh Zh’s Israeli roots, Shemtov opens up like an excitable academic. He visits family there often.
“We have the entire Mediterranean, Spain, France…following the path of the Moors through North Africa, Morocco, all over to Egypt, and deeper in the Middle East…Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Yemen. They’re all represented in such a small strip of land.”
Of course, that confluence of culinary types is pretty Californian too.
“(Israel) is like L.A. in a lot of ways,” Shemtov agrees. “If L.A. were to be classified as a cuisine, I think it’s a mashup of everyone’s traditions and cultures.”
Mh Zh will attempt new bouts of chaos to the sidewalk in the coming months. Sophomore year means new desserts, expanded seating, trees from which to pick bay leaves, and an “80s kick” played over the speakers. They’re also hoping to finally acquire a B.Y.O.B. license, which is sure to make the corner all the more sacred.
It’s small. For years, the founders had walked by the tiny space, and dreamed of fitting an oven inside. They make do with creative vertical spacing, minimal plating, and bare bones décor.
To do Mh Zh, add your name to the list with good time to spare; don’t be surprised if the host writes it in Hebrew letters; wait around or grab a cocktail down the street (Cliff’s Edge, Sawyer, and Kettle Black are all walkable); then, settle into your chairs, order as a team, dip, dab, and see if you can taste what makes Mh Zh so wonderfully peculiar.