237 St. James Place, 215-625-8800,
AVERAGE PRICE FOR THE RECOMMENDED FIVE PLATES: $40.
FOOD: Modern Israeli.
WINE: A global list — with a bottle or two from Israel.
GET: The $50 chef-choice Mesibah.
DON’T GET: Dressed up for dinner.
The skewers section of the menu conforms most closely to traditional restaurant portions. These entrées share a ubiquitous Israeli cooking method; all are threaded on stainless steel skewers and cooked over open coals. The searing heat, which reaches 800 degrees, imparts intense flavor and texture to anything it touches, but high-quality ingredients and creative accoutrements keep these kebabs from tasting the same.
This section also represents the menu at its most didactic — each dish is named for the country or culture it’s drawn from, mapping out which world cuisines have influenced Israeli food and how. The approach may seem heavy-handed to the uninterested, but the results aren’t. The Farsi combines succulent lamb with aromatic saffron and a sticky, berry-dotted rice. The Bulgarian trio of lamb and beef patties is amazingly juicy considering the burnished exteriors, and the rice and white beans it’s served with soak up the big, meaty flavors. Even the token vegetarian skewer, the Galil, is hearty and delicious, with sweet baby eggplant dusted with pistachios.
From the time you place your order, food flies out of the kitchen whenever it’s ready, whether there’s space on your table or not. Meal pacing isn’t a priority here, as it was at Marigold; the emphasis is on the food itself and the conviviality of sharing. It’s a break from the rules and regulations of formal fine dining. And while service is smart, the servers are casual in kitschy t-shirts with ironed-on logos from Israeli pop culture. Used silverware and plates aren’t swapped out during dinner, and the skimpy paper napkins are more company picnic than trendy restaurant.
For traditionalists, this glib vibe may diminish the dining experience, especially at this price point. As at other small-plate venues, the tab, especially with drinks, can add up fast. But for the large contingent of diners who’ve embraced informality, communal eating and relaxed table manners, Zahav has tapped into the ethos of moment. And for Solomonov, who wants his adopted hometown to know the pleasures of the Israeli table, a certain amount of mess and chaos is essential to the experience.
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