Ahhh Zahav, one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. Every time I have ever talked about Zahav to someone, their mouths water and their eyes widen as they almost inevitably tell me that "it was the best meal I've ever had" and other bunkum like "it is worthy of four Michelin stars" or "I want to marry Solomonov."  Personally, when almost everyone says these kinds of things to me, I immediately start to wonder whether it is the food talking or the hype generated from people hopping on the trendy-food bandwagon  So, in the name of science and discovery, I decided to check it out

 After waiting over two and a half months for an 8:30 reservation on a Monday night, I finally got my chance to test this modern Israeli restaurant. To get a little background on what I would be eating, I decided to look up the master chef and his restaurant.  Chef Michael Solomonov was born in Israel in 1978. After working the line at Vetri, Solomonov, after his brother was killed during a volunteer military campaign, decided to completely change focus and return to his roots. So, he secured finances from Steven Cook and opened Zahav in 2008. In addition to owning this Philadelphia staple, he also owns Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, and many other places.  

Initial Thoughts

Jesse Fox

When I arrived at the restaurant, I could not help but notice that it was kind of hidden. Atop a little precipice, Zahav has the perfect level of seclusion. This added to the mysteriousness of the restaurant. Walking up the steps and through the door, the beautiful wafting scents of the kitchen caused an olfactory overload. I was definitely excited.

The waitress came over and handed us a comprehensive drink menu with a very impressive list of wines, many of which come from the Middle East. After ordering drinks, the waitress walked us through the menu. Not only is there Israeli-inspired food, but also food from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean coast of Europe. Taking the waitresses's recommendation, my friend and I ordered the Tayim, a tasting menu that includes the six daily salatim, hummus and laffa, two mezze each, one al ha'esh (grilled over charcoal) each, and one dessert each.

First Course: Salatim

Jesse Fox

As the drinks, tehina hummus, salatim, and laffa bread came out, the meal officially began. Before going, I was told by everyone not to fill up on the hummus and laffa to save my appetite, despite them both being irresistible. Safe to say I didn't listen— it was all gone so quickly. The salatim, or the collection of salads of the day, was comprised of Moroccan carrots, green beans in a tomato matbucha, salt-roasted beets with tehina, fennel with zhoug, napa cabbage with speckled sumac onions, and twice-cooked eggplant with red bell peppers.

Wow. Just wow. The hummus was so creamy and not too oily or salty. Of the salatim, the twice-cooked eggplant was my favorite. All of the plates had layered, complex flavors that worked so well.  Additionally, the laffa, cooked in a traditional taboon, was also to die for. Overall, the first round of food has not been a let down.  

Second Course: Mezze

Jesse Fox

Next up: the mezze course. Since I went with a friend, we each ordered two for the table; I ordered the Haloumi and grilled duck hearts while my friend ordered the brussels sprouts and the kibbe Naya (raw lamb mixed with bulgur, Fresno chile, lamb bacon, and tomato). The portion sizes were perfect while the layers of flavor were immaculate. My favorite dish was the Haloumi because it was crispy on the outside and the saltiness was cut by the date paste underneath the bite-size pieces of cheese. The rest of the mezze were also amazing. For the not-so faint of heart, try the hearts. They were not at all muscly or chewy and were perfectly complemented by the pumpkin tehina they sat on. With this, I was starting to believe the hype too. 

Third Course: Al Ha-Esh

Jesse Fox

The next course was the al ha-esh, which is Hebrew for "on the fire." When ordering, my friend and I immediately ordered the chicken shisklik; however, we were stuck deciding between the Branzino and the eggplant. When the chicken arrived with the rice pilaf, I was astounded by how well the charred onion married the flavors of the Harif (a Yeminite hot sauce) to the chicken. After the chicken, both the Branzino and eggplant came out. Confused, I called the waitress over to let her know that they must have made a mistake because we only ordered the eggplant. She then let us know that because the Branzino was her favorite dish and she wanted us to try it, it was on the house. With a new sense of invigoration, we chowed down on these amazing dishes and, just like the waitress, the extra-crispy Branzino over tzatziki was my favorite.  

Final Course: Dessert

Jesse Fox

Stuffed beyond belief, we still had dessert left to tackle.  The menus came out and immediately my eyes drifted to the Pumpkin Kanafi.  Anything pumpkin is my favorite dessert in America, and Kanafi (or Kenafeh) is my favorite Israeli sweet that I have yet to find outside the country. Electrified at the thought of the synergy between my two favorite desserts I, with alacrity, ordered that. My friend decided to order, per the waitress' recommendation, the Malabi custard.  In addition to these two desserts, we both ordered Turkish coffee, a very strong coffee (the grinds are left at the bottom) mixed with cardamom. 

The Kanafi came with a rich and creamy milk chocolate ice cream on top that perfectly cut the tartness of the citrus fruit on top.  Also, the Kanafi did not lose its distinct bright-orange color. Surprisingly, I liked the Malabi custard more. It had a very floral aroma and taste that made it very similar to a rose panna cotta. Additionally, the huckleberries and pears on top added a perfect flavor complement to the redolence of the dish.

The Verdict

It was worth it.

As the check came out with two little pieces of halvah, I sat contemplating the expansive and delicious meal I had just eaten. Dreaming about the laffa and Haloumi, I was tapped by my friend and she asked me whether or not it was worth the hype.  Without balking, I immediately and succinctly responded with "hell yeah."  The meal was one of the best I've ever had in my life. I would 10 out of 10 recommend Zahav to everyone and prepare them to be blown away by the artisanship of Chef Solomonov. 

In addition to the food being great, Zahav, to me, stands as a political statement.  Solomonov utilizes food and cooking techniques from all over the Middle East showing that the peace and cooperation is welcomed by all.  Eating Yemenite hot sauce with Israeli laffa while the table next to me drinks Lebanese wine shows that cooperation and peace is possible through transcending mediums like food. Overall, whether you care about good food or not, Zahav, a tiny restaurant in Philly, also stands as a beacon of hope for peace and cooperation in the world. Hats off to you, Chef Solomonov.