An Israeli Feast in Philadelphia’s Historic Old City 

Zahav

I finally went to dinner last week at Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, a raincheck due to a reservation mixup from the week before. The wait was worth it though, since the anticipation built. The menu at Zahav is broken up into many smaller dishes and sharing is encouraged.

 We debated ordering cocktails, but instead opted for a pitcher of the Limonana ($16)–a freshly squeezed lemonade steeped with mint leaves. They also make an alcoholic version that has whiskey, and is available by the glass or pitcher. The Limonana was refreshingly tart, slightly sweet and delicious. It made me think of going to the beach in Tel Aviv, especially since all the coffee chains in Israel make their own version of this drink.

  

Since we were at an Israeli restaurant, we knew that ordering hummus was essential. We went with the large Tehina Hummus ($12). The hummus was made with lemon, parsley, cumin, garlic and sesame. It had a great salty bite and was super smooth, with an amazing moth feel. The next thing to hit my palate was the garlic and parsley flavors with a backbone of sesame from the tahini, a classic ingredient in hummus. The lemon made it pungent, but there was no aftertaste–just hummus flavor. The hummus was paired with a couple of big laffa, a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread that they bake in their wood-burning oven. The laffa was hot, chewy, crisp, and huge. It had a great char from the wood-burning oven, with a light sprinkling of za’atar seasoning on top. It was clear that the za’atar went on after baking, which showed a definite refinement of technique and knowledge of spices–I think that cooking za’atar often makes it lose its bold flavor. The hummus appetizer was a great start to our Middle Eastern meal.   

  

Next up were the mezze dishes, or small plates. The Crispy Grape Leaves ($10) were a little greasy with crispy, thin as paper leaves stuffed with beef. The meat was spicy, with a smoky flavor. My first one was very meaty, and the second one had some more rice, and was almost creamy in texture. The grape leaves were garnished with a harissa tahini. Harissa is a North African–often from Tunisia–chili pepper paste. Our waitress indicated that they make their own Harissa with Aleppo peppers. The sauce was creamy and aromatic, with a smokiness that echoed the cumin in the grape leaves, and a pleasant aftertaste of building heat.

We also ordered the Fried Cauliflower ($10). The dish had a great aroma, and the cauliflower maintained a nice bite and were charred. They were rubbed with a spice rub, including cumin, and cooked tossed with some raisins. The accompanying yogurt labaneh sauce was delicious. My friend used the word “exquisite.” The labaneh was seasoned with chive, dill, mint and garlic. The tanginess of the yogurt cut through the almost heavy cauliflower, and there was a touch of acidity in the labaneh that added a nice twist.

After the mezze plates, came the Al Ha’Esh, which literally translates to “on the fire” in Hebrew, but referee colloquially to barbecue. The two proteins were served over a Mediterranean rice pilaf on the same plate, and featured  number of sides. This was to encourage sharing in a communal meal, which is the way Zahav prefers their diners approach the eating experience here. The Sirloin Sishlik ($14) had bIg chunks of meat, which were perfectly grilled, and served on skewers that were removed table side. The beef had an aromatic, grill flavor and was slightly chewy. It was seasoned to perfection with definite undertones of garlic.
 
The Salmon ($14) was also cooked excellently. The inside of the fish glistened, was juicy and white in the middle. The menu indicated that the salmon came with pomegranate molasses, and I worried that it might be too sweet, but the fish turned out very savory while still absorbing the deep flavor of the molasses. The skin was nice and crisp, which was probably helped by the molasses coating.

Along with the al ha’esh plates, came a bunch of condiment garnishes. There was a Mediterranean spiced bowl of stewed tomatoes, carrots and white beans. It had a creamy consistency and its heaviness stood up to the grilled proteins. It wasn’t exactly as light as a chutney, but not as heavy as a braise. It was especially tasty with the Schug, a spicy Israeli condiment that the chef prepared with pistachios and habanero peppers. The pistachios in the schug gave it great body and deep flavor, while the habaneros lent a serious, lasting heat. The dishes also came with some rice mixed with lentils and onions that was different from the rice on the main plate. It was almost like an Israeli version of dirty Cajun rice. Finally, there were some picked veggies that had a great tanginess that haloes cut through the richness of the meats, and some black garlic tahini. The tahini was very strong, but the garlic flavor was not super prevalent. It was actually fabulous with the pickles.
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If you knew us, then you’d know that we can’t resist dessert, especially to compete our Middle Eastern feast. The Kataifi ($9) was listed as chocolate ganache with a passionfruit soufflé. My first bite had a passion fruit punch–it was sweet, sour, acidic, and creamy. The passionfruit custard was lightly dusted with nuts, and sat in a phyllo dough birds nest. The chocolate ganache was nestled on the inside bottom of the nest. The entire dish was texturally almost a play on baklava, but visually the passionfruit looked like the egg white of an egg in a bird’s nest–very creative! The dish was very playful with textures–creamy, crispy, and chewy–and cerebral.
IMG_1926The Ice Cream Sandwich ($9) dessert came with thinly sliced, sweetened beets the outer layers of the sandwich consisted of a crumbly and chewy chocolate cake, which had an almost streusel-like texture, but fudgier. The cake was slightly weird, but a good foil for the sandwich. There were also chewy candied cumquat slices on the plate, which was sweet but still kept its bitterness. The “ice cream” was a labaneh semifredo, which differs from ice cream in that it has more of a frozen mousse consistency. The cream had a unique flavor from the labaneh and wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The melon in the middle of the plate was a nice fresh way to finish the dessert. If I had to guess, it might have been casaba melon.
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Overall, all of our food was super delicious, and we were so full after our Israeli feast. The highlight of the meal for me though, was that the chef and owner, Mike Solomonov, stopped by our table before dessert. He was really nice, and talked to us about our meal, the restaurant, and how our night was going. I loved how he made time to see how we were enjoying his restaurant. Thanks so much!IMG_1925
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