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.
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.