It only took 10 years. Pretty much everyone I know including my oldest who now lives in Philly made it to Zahav before me. Winning the coveted Outstanding Restaurant at the 2019 James Beard awards, the Oscars of dining in America, didnt help my quest. It doesnt seem like its mission impossible, but over the years, every time I tried, I failed to reserve a table. So last Sunday I sent an email declaring myself available in case of a cancellation, and lo and behold, an hour later I had a table reserved for four.
The story is inspiring. While it was Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook’s third restaurant when they opened Zahav in 2008, it wasnt an immediate success. They barely made it through year one. Judging by the number of hosts we spotted last Sunday, these guys have gone a long way. To get the James Beard prize a restaurant must be open for 10 consecutive years. Solomonov and Cook struck gold, or “Zahav” which means gold in Hebrew. But Zahav in this case is more of a reference to Jerusalem, city of gold. The food touches on Jerusalem’s street food, and the room mimics elements of its hidden courtyards. Supposedly! It was a little dark.
Ordering at Zahav is like a surprise math quiz that you dont want to screw up. The much touted Tayim tasting menu works for some, but not all. For our family, it made more sense to order a la carte. iPhone flashlight was used to see the menu, take some god-awful shots, and on occasion make sure the people sitting across are still my children. Gone are the days when I get embarrassed when someone uses flash at my table. I’m now that guy.
The food for the most part lived up to the hype. The Salatim, miniature size rotating salads of the day were all on point, with everyone reaching for different favorites. More scrumptiousness followed with the Mezzes, where the cauliflower, the Israeli staple, and Haloumi being particular standouts. The good news is that the signature silky smooth hummus is awesome. The bad news is that the silky smooth hummus is awesome. I’ll explain.
The grilled section dubbed “Al Ha’esh” (literally means “on top of fire” – my favorite kind of grilled) were well-thought-out, expertly cooked tapas size “mains”. The Lamb merguez was good but overshadowed by the the others. The excellent grilled eggplant reminded me of eggplant in some Chinese restaurants. The Chicken Shishlik (Kebab in Russian, one of the many influences in Israeli cuisine) was zesty and quite juicy. And the two bites I had of the Branzino were great.
Everything was cooked well and featured nice combination of flavors and textures. But at the end of the day something was missing. It could be the only large dish of the house, the signature whole-roasted lamb shoulder which is only available via the larger “Mesiba” tasting menu. I’m pro business. I dont usually suggest how restaurateurs should conduct their business, as they do things for a reason in order to survive the game. But as a consumer, it would have been nice to have this dish available for us. Some of us got smaller stomachs (mine is shrinking), and the Mesiba (party in hebrew) just meant way too much food. I didnt want a party, but a casual get together. Instead we watched this glorious looking plate parade all over the room, while we take small bites off our tapas.
I suppose we could have chosen more than one chicken or fish, and had our own mini Mesiba if you will. But on your first visit, you fall into the trap of trying various dishes, and the habit of ordering a dish more than once is foreign to us. The lack of large plates meant a couple of bites in some cases, and just when your taste buds start to warm up to a new flavor, its gone. At the end of the meal we all agreed that our favorite was the hummus, a dish I’ve had many times at Dizengoff. Granted, it was even more awesome here. But on my highly anticipated first visit, I was craving a knockout dish I hadn’t had before. Otherwise, the prices are fair, and its a true gem in center Philly that would do fairly well in NYC.