I was in love with Philadelphia’s new-ish (founded 2011) modern Israeli restaurant Zahav (“gold” in Hebrew) before I knew its story. Before I learned that its chef, Michael Solomonov, was inspired to create the restaurant when his brother was killed while serving in the IDF. Before I learned that although the restaurant isn’t kosher, it’s high-end clientele get to enjoy kosher style Middle Eastern dining, in that they are not served pork, or shellfish, and meat and milk do not grace the same plate. Heck, I was in love with this restaurant before the bartender told me that their spice guru shares my same name (Lior Lev Sercarz at La Boite in Manhattan).
If I lived in Philly, I would dine here WAY too often. Because, plain and simple, I’m in love with the food I ate at Zahav; and I was staying just ten minutes away from the restaurant while in town for a legal boot camp last week. And since most of the menu is seasonal, you could dine there often and it would always captivate.
When you walk into the restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, you’re immediately greeted not just with warm and welcoming service, but with the sense that you’re somewhere old and familiar and yet trendy and new. The floors are limestone, and the backsplash behind the bar looks and feels like you’re in Jerusalem, scribbling notes to make wishes in its yellowed stone. The hip hop plays lightly in the background over the buzz of the patrons’ young energy. The restaurant is filled with hanging lanterns whose lights echo in the glass, and above the wood-fire oven is a gigantic blown up photo of what seems to be Israel’s Jerusalem shuk, a bustle of people and foods, and excitement, which is exactly the energy I felt entering the restaurant.
The place isn’t massive, but was packed, so when I arrived, party of one, at 7:30pm on a Wednesday, I was told if I wanted a table I would have to wait for over an hour. Instead, 20 minutes and a glass of Tempranillo later, I took a seat at the bar.
I have to admit that I chose Zahav not because the menu looked amazing or the prices were right. I actually didn’t even look at the menu before walking in the door. I picked it for my first dinner in the city of Philly since 2000 because it makes every top restaurant in Philly list, and it’s Israeli. I’m Jewish, I’m biased, I admit it. But the food literally blew me away. And I’d come back again and again.
And lucky me, the restaurant features small plates, which is my favorite way to eat. I’d rather try 10 different great appetizer/small plates than one amazing entree. Then you really get a sense of what a restaurant is trying to do, and who the chef is.
I ordered what the bartender recommended — a plate of their famous hummus with tahini, a plate of fried cauliflower, a persimmon salad, and the duck kebab. The hummus with tahini’s best feature was that it came with six mini salads/sides (yes, six) on top of the hummus and pita. The tabouli salad was the best tabouli salad I’d ever had — a mixture of fresh herbs (cilantro and parsley) with pomegranates, walnuts, lemon and apples. I’m going to try to make it at home but know it won’t come close. I would have eaten plates of that. The Israeli salad was light and fresh but not as good as Bubbe’s (sorry Chef), not enough of a lemon kick for me. There was also a green bean and tomato dish with a little spice, a sliced cucumber dish with way too much spice, a heavenly twice-roasted eggplant, and a salted beets salad that were each perfect for dipping the homemade pita in since the hummus was good but not mind-blowing — a bit too much oil in the center, I have to say.
But it was the “Mezze” portion of the meal that would have me coming back again & again. The persimmon salad was the perfect combination of taste and flavors. Bulgarian feta cheese and persimmon two ways, with crunchy pistachios and a dipping sauce that brought it all together. “Salad” is an inappropriate word for the dish, really. It makes you think of a few veggies over lettuce. No lettuce here. Just these amazing veggies, nuts, and cheese. I was in heaven.
And then the fried cauliflower came and my eyes literally rolled into the back of my head. The cauliflower was flash fried in canola oil and its only spice was black salt but the flavor of the vegetable just popped, and combined perfectly with the light labneh dipping sauce with dill, chives, mint, and garlic. The bartender who recommended the dish called it his “go to” and I would definitely agree. No question it would be on my list every time.
The “main” dish, if you could call it that since by this time I was supremely full, was duck kebab, with black garlic, grapes, rose and pistachio, over saffron rice. It was delicious but I have to admit that at that point I was so satiated I couldn’t be a real judge of flavor. The preceding mezze dishes also so accosted my senses with their perfection, that I have to admit I was distracted. I’d like to try this one again, perhaps earlier in the night. I do have to say I found it mildly annoying that the duck “kebab” was not one. Perhaps it was cooked on a kebab, but the presentation was more of a duck patty, with fois gras and pistachio ground into the duck breast. Perhaps “duck patty” doesn’t sound as elegant? Like the “salad” aforementioned, this seemed like a quirk that had no bearing on taste but irked me nonetheless.
For your benefit (not for my waist’s) I did want to try a dessert, but I was so full by the time I reached the duck “kebab” that I decided it would be a waste of the chef’s efforts to bake one for me. Next time. I’m sure their desserts are delicious, of course, and maybe by midnight when I’m hungry again I’ll wish I tried the date tart with almond and orange blossom or the ricotta with labneh and ice cream.
There’s no doubt in my mind looking back on this evening’s experience why the restaurant gets 4.5 stars on Yelp and Trip Advisor, and is the Best Middle Eastern Restaurant in Philadelphia according to Zagat. The food is innovative (modern in style yet ancient in flavor) the decor enticing, and the service welcoming. So whether you’re going to Philadelphia next month or next year, make a mental note to dine at Zahav. Maybe I’ll see you there.