How Israel Got Huge

Making Israeli cuisine mainstream isn’t something Michael Solomonov set out to do when he opened Zahav. But the mini-boom in native and Diaspora flavors in Philly is exactly what he laid the foundation for.

Lunch rush at Dizengoff | Photo by Michael Persico

Lunch rush at Dizengoff | Photo by Michael Persico

You’ve got to understand something about Israeli cuisine right from the start: It’s not something that existed in the American consciousness a few years ago.

Really, it’s not something that exists there now. Not in most places. You’ll find a few spots in and around New York where Israeli dishes get to shine. And there have always been delis where you could get your brisket and your matzo ball soup, but that’s more about Jewish cuisine than it is Israeli. Like the thing about thumbs and fingers, all Israeli restaurants are Jewish but not all Jewish restaurants are Israeli.

What I’m talking about when I’m talking about Israeli cuisine is the intelligent, deliberately composed, postmodern (meaning post-fusion) global-but-contained construct of foods native to the state of Israel and those carried both in and away by the Diaspora. It’s a cuisine of rigid borders and wild inclusion, of tradition and translation. Put simply, I’m talking about Zahav and Michael Solomonov and the fact that the bursting of those two onto the local and national food scene in May of 2008 was an instant in culinary history tantamount to the first time some chef called his place Szechuan and not just Chinese. A watershed moment.

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And this wasn’t something imported from New York or re-translated from the West Coast. It happened here, in Philadelphia. Grilled duck hearts with black olives became a thing. Sweetbread schnitzel with beet-brined egg, branzino with green chickpeas and turmeric, fried potatoes with kashkaval cheese, and anchovy and pickled shifka peppers all became a thing. And a crazy thing, too, because those are techniques and flavors from a half dozen culinary traditions right there, in that short little list of things that are now a thing. A half dozen techniques and flavors that meld perfectly, that have spiraled outward to influence brisket noodle bowls with matzo and kimchi at Cheu, fava bean and preserved lemon arancini at Barbuzzo, and other chefs working in other traditions.

Solomonov didn’t stop there. He took doughnuts and fried chicken from cool to cultish (partly by serving tahini-glazed doughnuts and za’atar-rubbed chicken to people who’d never even considered such flavors before). He took Israeli cuisine quick-serve with his own hummusiya (Dizengoff), then doubled down on the foods of the Diaspora with Abe Fisher. He threw in with David Magerman when Magerman decided to bring high-end kosher food to the Main Line with Citron & Rose, loaded up the menu with dishes like sholet with Manishewitz and prunes and sour-cherry-glazed liver in a soil of cacao and pumpernickel, then walked away. In his absence, new chef Karen Nicholas went kosher fusion, doing potato kugel tots and soft pretzels with honeyed schmaltz, even if the bulk of the third-wave menu is now more globally approachable than rigorously canonical.

Magerman is growing the brand, with new restaurants opening and more in the works. Grilled duck hearts and sweetbread schnitzel have opened up new avenues of experimentation among chefs who previously might not have looked to Sephardic and Ashkenazi foodways for inspiration. And Solomonov is now a bona fide celebrity chef, with multiple restaurants, national press, a PBS documentary, and everything that comes with that (occasionally suspect) title.

The documentary, unsurprisingly, is called “The Search for Israeli Cuisine.”

Originally published as “How Israel Got Huge” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.