“Ziseh kind, there is no such thing as Israeli food,” retorted my Jersey ma, a born-and-raised-on-the-LES-right-around-the-corner-from Russ and Daughters Jew.
I wouldn’t dare argue the anthropology of Israeli food with her. I suppose she is right: Israeli food, by and large, is a hodge-podge of borrowed cuisines.
Michael Solomonov, former chef of the popular Marigold Kitchen BYOB in Philadelphia (and former chef under Marc Vetri before that), has opened Zahav, a restaurant serving food from his homeland, Israel. You can read more about Chef Solomonov here.
You say pastilla, I say bastiya. Regardless of how you pronounce or spell it, it’s one of my favorite treats – savory, sweet, flaky, and moist all in one bite.
At Zahav, they spell it pastilla ($13) and I had been anxiously awaiting this dish for weeks; indeed, it was the main reason for my visit to Zahav. Thankfully, it did not disappoint. The light and flaky phyllo shell surrounded a screeching hot mix of ground rabbit, prunes and almond.
Although I wished the filling had more flavor (more aggressive with cinnamon and maybe allspice and whatever else traditionally goes in), it was quite good – not dry as I had feared. I do not know whether they added egg into this filling; if so, there wasn’t a lot of it. Lightly dusted with a blanket of confectioners sugar, the pastry was quite large – ample for a light meal for one.
Being three gluttons (at least, speaking for myself), we sampled widely and aggressively. We ordered enough for six, and the chef sent out an additional two plates for us. We managed to finish almost everything (despite the fact that we had feasted just hours before at Amada).
The Kibbe Naya here is also a particularly fine specimen ($8). Besides the pastilla, this was the other highlight of our meal. The thin pavement of ground lamb was silky and nicely seasoned with spices, flecked with bulgar, and coated with a fine layer of olive oil. It was sided by three mini romaine lettuce leaves. Perfectly folded at the spine, they served as a nice vehicle for shuttling meat to mouth.
The chopped liver here is not bad either ($6). The chopped liver connoisseur at our table gave a good summary: excellent texture (it was very smooth) but having a non-traditional flavor. The pâté was bolstered with Mediterranean spices (I believe they were Turkish) and a nice spicy kick. The accompanying slices of rye toast were a nice play on the traditional Jewish bread of choice.
The sampling of “Salatim” – salads – which started our meal, had hits and misses. We ordered the larger of the two sizes ($24), which included all eight salads: beets with tahini, pickled cauliflower, carrot and jalepeño, Israeli salad, chickpeas, spiced cabbage, roasted eggplant, and tabouleh.
The eight dishes were set on a two-tier metal rack whose impressive form far exceeded its function at the table (although it was quite an efficient way to transport the salads to our table). We ended up taking the dishes off the top rack to have better access.
Among these, the beet with tahini and carrot with jalepeño were particularly good. The tabouleh was middling, as was the Israeli salad. Neither the picked cauliflower nor the chickpeas left much of an impression either. I was expecting the spicy cabbage to be a tad softer – it was a little too raw for me.
From the grill, we ordered two dishes: the “Monsieur Merguez” and the “Jerusalem Grill.” Both were disappointing.
“Monsieur Merguez” featured two fat cigars of ground meat served with cous cous, a dab of matchuba (an Israeli cooked salad of red pepper and tomatoes – here, it was more like a thick tomato sauce condiment), and a small bowl of chicken broth on the side ($17). I found the merguez (not sure if it was beef or lamb) flavorless and a touch dry – two things merguez should never be. I found the accompanying chicken broth, with carrot coins swimming about, the better half of this dish.
The “Jerusalem Grill” was even more disappointing ($10). Although they were incredibly tender and moist (barely grilled and still very red), the chicken livers had an unclean taste that was off-putting. The sweetbreads were better, though not great.
We also ordered three “small plates” – I call them “small” because there were small.
I know that cauliflower isn’t exactly cheap anymore – especially out of season – but I thought that $6 was kinda steep for the few fried florets that came on a cup filled mostly with labaneh seasoned with fresh dill, mint, and garlic.* Both elements, however, were great. Together, they were awesome. There was a lot of labaneh left over.
The stuffed grape leaves were also a bit overpriced ($7) and, unfortunately, entirely boring. The filling of Egyptian rice, feta, dill and walnuts was shockingly bland (though one in our party really enjoyed them).
The Crispy Halloumi ($6) was a little more reasonably priced. This plate came with a nice portion of grilled nuggets of the cheese – crisped on the outside with a bit of give on the inside. Date puree and pine nuts made wonderful accompaniments. As grilled/fried halloumi has the shelf-life of a scallop in summer, we ate these quickly.
Zahav is not a particularly charming restaurant. It’s tucked away on the second level of a building hidden among an odd assortment of residential type buildings. The entrance, up a flight of stairs, is obscured and, from the outside, appears like nothing more than an afterthought of an exit. Despite its vantage on the second level, it offers an unexciting view out of the wall of windowed banquettes along its northern face.
The interior is spacious – but a little cold, with high ceilings and spot lighting. I have no idea what (if anything) was in the space prior to Zahav, but if I had to guess, I’d venture that it was a furniture/home fixture store. It was probably something as mundane as another restaurant.
The dining room is somewhat retrofitted with a rustic Middle Eastern aesthetic – sandstone blocks, tiles, colorful lanterns, and desert colors (most noticeably in the two archways leading into “The Quarter,” a separate dining area used for the restaurant’s private parties and a weekly prix-fixe dinner on Thursday) – feels every bit as awkward as its situation.
The music is odd – not of any particular style or substance – and prone to random fits of stops and starts.
Service was virtually non-existent during the first half of the meal. Inexplicably, it picked up considerably when the manager came to our table and oversaw the rest of our meal’s service.
It was about this time that Chef Solomonov generously sent out two more dishes.
The first, “Sabra,” included nuggets of grilled “young chicken” dusted with sumac, topped with shaved onions and Israeli cous cous ($17). This was fantastic; probably my favorite dish of the evening. Never have I tasted sumac used in such a seamless and convincing way. And the chicken was immensely tender and juicy.
The other dish that Solomonov sent out was his favorite – his grandmother’s borekas. These triangular pastries had a soft, flaky puff pastry-like exterior. Served straight out of the oven, as they were in our case, the filling was a molten core of briny feta mixed with ricotta and olives. These puppies were delicious. Each pastry was accompanied by half of a stained boiled egg (reminds me of Chinese tea or soy eggs), which, though probably traditional (or at least to Solomonov’s grandmother’s plate?) were superfluous – especially for us at that point in our meal.
On those two positive notes, we soldiered on to dessert.
I decided to explore Solomonov’s playful side by ordering the “New School” Konafi ($7). I’m familiar with “Old School” Konafi ($5), which was also on the menu – from the description, it sounds similar to the famous Turkish pastry with a similar pronunciation but different spelling.
Instead of sweet cheese or a pistachio filling the shredded phyllo in the “New School” was layered with dark chocolate. Instead of the addition of floral rose water (or, I think orange blossom water is sometimes used too?), this version was accented with citrus: candied kumquats. The whole was crowned with tangy labaneh ice cream.
I prefer “Old School.”
Though I love citrus and chocolate, the combination really didn’t work so well here. The chocolate didn’t taste like chocolate; it had a strange taste to it – almost as if it had been mixed with prunes, or some sort of dried dark fruit. The labaneh ice cream, sprinkled with neon-green bits of pistachio nuts, however, was delightful.
The “Halvah Semifreddo was a rather successful reinterpretation of the traditional chalky nut paste ($7). The richness of the sesame paste was tempered by its frozen state and cut with a bright compote of black cherries.
The Honey Cake was, without question, our collective favorite. If only all (Jewish) new years could be so sweet. This little round of sticky sweetness was nicely spiced and very moist. Solomonov cleverly deconstructs the recipe somewhat by serving the cake with coffee ice cream and a rich raisin (crème) anglaise sauce.
Overall, my experience at Zahav was rather positive. My enthusiasm is, perhaps, tempered by the atmosphere, setting, and certainly the chilly and slow start to our meal. Not every dish was to my liking. But, I don’t think there were any execution errors.
Zahav offers a unique dining experience. While most Middle Eastern restaurant start and end with the familiar pita-hummus-kebab roster of dishes, Solomonov goes beyond to highlight some other traditional dishes, like pastilla and borekas – for the most part, successfully casting them with a New World (if not contemporary) light. For this, I applaud Solomonov and Zahav.
A note on wine: Although we refrained for imbibing, the restaurant had a limited, but interesting wine list.
With the completion of this review, I *finally* close out my epic face-stuffing trip to the City of Brotherly Love nearly four months ago. You can read about all of my dining and scoop-searching adventures here.
*Note, I just checked Zahav’s website and the format of the menu has changed. So have the prices. Some items have increased (like the Crispy Halloumi, which is now a dollar more) in price, others (like the Fried Cauliflower and Moroccan Pastilla) have dropped. The grill items can now be ordered in half orders and full, making Zahav an even more compelling venue for casual group dining.
Executive Chef/Owner Michael Solomonov
237 St. James Place
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106