As executive chef at Marigold Kitchen, one of the city’s best-reviewed BYOBs, Michael Solomonov earned accolades in the pages of food glossies. Young and photogenic, with gobs of talent and charisma, he wooed critics and regulars with creative fare that flaunted his formal culinary training, his tenure as sous-chef at Vetri, and his Israeli heritage. But as Solomonov’s experience grew, the chef glommed onto a more personal idea for a restaurant, a place where he would cook simply, preparing the food of his family and serving it just the way it’s done in his hometown of G’nei Yehuda.
[sidebar]At new Zahav in Society Hill, Solomonov has found a way to communicate his history and heritage through a vocabulary of flavors mostly unfamiliar to Philadelphia diners. Zahav doesn’t look like fussy fine dining, but attention to detail in the kitchen, taken to the level of Marigold and Vetri, elevates the food way above the everyday fare it pretends to be. (A second dining room, opening this summer, offers a more elaborate prix-fixe menu.)
Once you’re seated, expect a crash course in Israeli dining from a well-educated server. He’ll explain that the family-style meal traditionally begins with salad — an assortment of eight tiny ramekins filled with flavor-packed preparations like velvety twice-cooked eggplant; a chopped mixture of refreshing cucumbers and tomatoes; tart and creamy slaws of red and green cabbage; and silken pureed red peppers — and then proceeds to a course devoted to hummus. (Four varieties are offered.) Next up: a few mezze, or small plates, and finally skewers of meat, chicken, vegetables and fish cooked over blazing coals. The salad course alone can border on sensory overload, with its range of intense flavors and contrasting textures. And it all sounds like too much food. But when the plates start arriving, you’ll see that while the flavors are big, most portions — except the skewers — are even more diminutive than tapas.
Zahav’s hummus is a substantial part of the meal, especially when eaten with the accompanying flatbread, which is made to order by a cook who was dispatched to Israel specifically to learn this singular culinary art. Three of the dips with it are based on the same chickpea/sesame paste/olive oil mixture, but the Turkish version replaces the oil with a rich French butter. Like all dishes at Zahav, this hummus is an emblem of Solomonov’s Israel. Each iteration — the masbacha, crowned with warm whole chickpeas; the hummus foul, complemented with large, tender fava beans — illuminates the disparate cultures that have made Israel a culinary melting pot.
Choosing from the 20 options for hot and cold mezze also takes diners around the world. These small plates show Cypriot, Armenian, Balkan, Turkish, Syrian and Moroccan influences, to name just a few. Of this cross-cultural cornucopia, don’t miss the exquisite crispy haloumi; the pairing of warm Cypriot cheese with sugary, tender dates and toasted pine nuts is as alluring as a clever cheese-and-wine match. The kibbe naya, essentially a clean-tasting lamb tartare, and the chicken freekah, a bed of roasted wheat topped with impossibly moist and tender shreds of chicken breast, also stand out from the pack of uniformly tasty mezze.