A flavorful Israeli outpost in the City of Brotherly Love

I have a standing invitation from Chef Michael Solomonov to bake Iraqi-style laffa bread.

Zahav (photo credit: George Medovoy)
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
PHILADELPHIA – I have a standing invitation from Chef Michael Solomonov to bake Iraqi-style laffa bread with him at Zahav, where Solomonov and his business partner, Steven Cook, offer classic Israeli tastes in a modern setting near the historic cobblestones of Dock Street.
Solomonov's invitation came when I was planning to visit Zahav, the Hebrew name for 'gold'.  As you walk along the golden limestone of its floors to your table, your sense of Israel's capital is deepened by a large photograph of the colorful Mahane Yehuda marketplace dominating the space over the restaurant's woodburning taboon.
But when it came time to calendar a specific date for a visit, things didn’t quite work out because the 33-year-old winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid- Atlantic was off on a scheduled visit to Paris and Budapest to check out the kosher food scene there in anticipation of the opening of Citron and Rose, his new glatt kosher place set to debut this summer in Merion, on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.
Eventually, I did make it to Zahav, where I enjoyed a memorable meal with my wife. It is quite simply an extraordinary trip through the flavors and textures of the Israeli food scene.
It may very well be an understatement, but as Solomonov told me over the phone, what makes Israel’s food experience so exciting is the meeting of “so many cultures... in one place.”
Describing himself as “an Israeli chef (who) is in and out of American and Israeli culture,” he told me that Israeli food is “huge, vast, I mean there’s North African...
Balkan... Arabic, and Yemeni, and all these things that had poor representation in the United States.”
“I love a good falafel or a good shwarma,” he said, “but that is not even close” to the spectrum of what Israeli food can be. This, of course, gets to the raison d’etre of Zahav, named “Best New Restaurant 2008” by Philadelphia Magazine.
The restaurant’s small-plates menu takes you on a down-to-earth culinary tour of Israel, starting off with salatim (a selection of eight tasty Middle Eastern salads) and hummus, then moving on to a variety of mezze (small plates), and finally to a choice of meats al ha’esh (grilled over coals).
There are wonderful desserts, along with cocktails, wines from Israel and Europe, a variety of spirits, and Arak from Israel and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
The young chef is also a partner in two other Philadelphia restaurants – the Percy Street Barbecue, a Texas-style BBQ and bar on South Street known for its smoked meats; and Federal Donuts on South Second Street, a mainly take-out place for donuts and fried chicken.
Solomonov was born in Ganei Yehuda and grew up in Pittsburg, with intervals back in Israel. At one point, he enrolled in college in Vermont to study video art, but the episode in higher education found Solomonov “barely able to sit down for longer than 10 minutes and type something out.”
Back in Israel, Solomonov chanced getting a job at a bakery in Kfar Saba and then became a short order line cook at a restaurant there – two jobs that first got him interested in becoming a chef.
“A lot of people don’t get to do what they love to do,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to go in and actually enjoy something and create and be part of a team.”
For Solomonov, it was the bourekas made by his Bulgarian grandmother, who arrived in Israel in 1948, that formed his earliest memories of Israeli food.
Working at the Kfar Saba bakery, Solomonov also made bourekas “in huge, huge batches,” but, he confided, they were “not quite as good as” his grandmother’s – which she made using Bulgarian feta cheese, a type of cottage cheese, and mashed potatoes.
At Zahav, Solomonov used to do feta-and-olive bourekas with an egg yolk in the middle, and he’s thinking of putting them back on the menu.
Getting serious about food, Solomonov attended the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida and graduated in 2000.
From 2001 to 2002, he worked under two well-known Philadelphia chefs – Terence Feury of Striped Bass and Marc Vetri of Vetri from 2002 to 2005.
It was during Solomonov’s tenure at Vetri, on Yom Kippur 2003, that his brother, David, a staff-sergeant in the IDF, was killed by Hizbullah fire while on patrol on the Lebanese border right before he was due to be released from the military.
Following his brother’s death, Solomonov saluted David’s fellow troops by preparing a meal for them while back in Israel.
Zahav opened in May of 2008, but before this happened, the chef made the gutsy decision to take some members of his opening staff to Israel for a week of non-stop eating to help them understand what the new restaurant was all about.
“We had over 30 meals in seven days,” he recalled. “We slept maybe five hours or something. It was like totally insane... you know what it’s like walking down the street in Tel Aviv at 2 a.m.? There’s so much going on, it never stops. And then there was Shabbat dinner in homes. You can’t really explain it without taking people there, I think they had to experience it.”
When my wife and I arrived at Zahav for an early, 6 p.m. dinner, the restaurant’s impeccable service began with a warm greeting and someone to take our coats.
Our table was at one end of the long room near the open kitchen, where I took a peak at the busy staff working on the evening’s menu. The restaurant isn’t kosher, but doesn’t serve shellfish or pork.
When I turned around an hour or so later to survey the scene, the place was packed, including a group of animated guests standing around the bar on one side of the room.
Our choice for dinner was “Tayim,” a taste of Zahav featuring salatim and hummus with laffa, two mezze, one al ha’esh and one dessert for $39 per person.
The salads consisted of red salt-roasted beets with tahini; Moroccan-style carrots; stewed baby okra with tomatoes; pickled celery; tabouli; twice-cooked eggplant; cucumber with sumac and onion; and English peas with horseradish.
There were four types of hummus you could choose from – hummus-tehina; hummus- masbacha (with warm chickpeas); hummus-ful (with warm fava beans); and Turkish hummus, served warm with butter and grilled garlic.
We chose the Turkish variety, nutty in taste and, of course, so richly suffused with butter.
When you lifted the hummus off the serving dish with a piece of the large-format laffa, you knew that you were in Middle Eastern food heaven.
Next came the mezze. I ordered the Crispy Haloumi, so tasty, with English peas, pine nuts and ramps, which our waitress advised me to eat while it was still warm; and the Golden Beet Salad, a nice interplay of sweet and tart, with ramps, Bulgarian feta cheese, and blood orange.
My wife selected the Fried Cauliflower, a Zahav favorite fried in canola oil at a high temperature and then flavored with labaneh and chive, dill, mint and garlic; and the lovely Spice-Crusted Cobia, which came with a serving of shakshuka and crispy sea beans.
For the grilled choices, we each had the Crispy Branzino, served with black-eyed peas, apple, celery root, and dill. The fish was delicious, and the crispy skin a delightful diversion.
We chose two desserts. The first was Kataifi, which contrasted sweet Valrhona chocolate and mango against refreshingly tart labaneh ice cream… and who could ever forget the wonderful crunch of the phyllo around the base of this delight! The second was Poppyseed Cake, playfully matched up with thick slices of banana topped with – surprise! – huckleberries.
French press coffee and mint tea rounded out the meal.
Fans of Zahav, knowing how exciting things are here, must be looking forward to Citron and Rose.
The new restaurant and full-service catering company will feature an open kitchen with a chef’s counter, seating for up to 60 guests, and a dark wood-marble topped bar, where guests will be able to order from an all-kosher cocktail, wine and beer list.
The owner of Citron and Rose is David Magerman, a food enthusiast and philanthropist who created the Kohelet Foundation to support Jewish day school education in Philadelphia and across the United States.
Chef Solomonov’s menu will feature meat cooked over a charcoal rotisserie grill, housemade Jewish charcuterie, an assortment of traditional pickles, vegetable dishes and salads, and freshly-baked breads and desserts.
The level of Citron and Rose, Solomonov explained, is “going to be higher than most people are used to. It’s going to be something unique and something special, and obviously personal to us as well, being Jews.”
I got a sense of Solomonov’s enthusiasm for Citron and Rose when he described his tastings in Paris and Budapest as “incredibly inspiring and delicious.” For example, when he visited a Parisian restaurant called Osmose, his serving of chicken liver with a balsamic gelee was “like out of this world.”
While in Paris, he also “hit a bunch of charcuterie places in the Marais,” (the traditional Jewish area of Paris), where a corned tongue dish was “so, so good,” as was a veal breast “cured like bacon.”
What also impressed him about the Paris kosher food scene was the sheer variety of items in butcher shops, where, for example, you could choose from “30 different salamis.”
In Budapest, at a restaurant called Rosenstein, the Philadelphia chef tasted “the best matzo ball soup by far that I’ve ever had in my life.”
Before his European trip, Solomonov also visited Montreal, a city rich in immigrant influences, for a sense of the Romanian-Jewish food trail there.
The cuisine of earlier Jewish generations, he emphasized, “is incredible, and it’s just as diverse as anything else… and it’s sort of lost.”
When Citron and Rose opens, it’s clear that these important Jewish traditions will once again return to center stage.
(Zahav is located at 237 Saint James Place on the grounds of Society Hill Towers. Citron and Rose will be located at 368-370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion).