JERUSALEM — The fragrant dishes that landed on the wooden table before us were powerfully good. But a look of sadness washed over chef Andrew Henshaw’s face when he slid his spoon into the soft semolina meat dumplings that bobbed in the colorful bowls of kubbeh soups, crimson with beet juice, greened with Swiss chard, tart with lemon.
“Chef, can I talk to you?” he called to Michael Solomonov, the chef and co-owner of Zahav, where Henshaw is chef de cuisine. He crossed the cramped dining room to crouch beside Solomonov and his partner, Steven Cook. And Henshaw confessed his culinary shame.
The Inquirer paid for all aspects of Craig LaBan’s trip to Israel with the CookNSolo team. Chefs of three CookNSolo restaurants set to open in Philadelphia — K’Far, Merkaz, and Laser Wolf — also participated in the trip for research. Another reviewer will write about those restaurants after they open.
It was stop No. 33 in a three-day tasting marathon across Israel on which the CookNSolo restaurant group had embarked with a small team. A research mission to prepare to open several new restaurants in Philadelphia, it was equal parts thrilling, grueling, and inspirational as they dived pita-first into the hummusiyas and grill houses of Tel Aviv, sought the “Holy Grail of Rugelach” in Jerusalem, and feasted at Palestinian kitchens in the Galilee. And food feelings were running high.
The source of Henshaw’s remorse? He’d worked on a recipe for kubbeh, the uniquely complex and tart Iraqi-Kurdish soup, for the 2018 cookbook Israeli Soul, coauthored by Solomonov and Cook. But after tasting the kubbeh at Azura in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda market, he couldn’t contain his disappointment at how far his own had fallen short.
“It’s OK, bro, we’re in this together,” Solomonov consoled. “The whole premise of this trip was for this kind of moment — because there are some things you just can’t articulate, no matter how hard you try. There’s a grandmother element to this food, and it has to be experienced while sitting in the Iraqi shuk in Jerusalem.”
Sitting at the table surrounded by these chefs, with the rush of heady flavors and the teeming energy of the ancient market, along for the ride on my own first trip to Israel, I understood what he meant.
“Dude, you should come to Israel with us,” Solomonov said to me in an unexpected phone call in January. “We’ve got an open space. It’s gonna be sick.”
Solomonov, the Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-raised chef, has been telling me to come along to Israel in every phone interview we’ve had over the 14 years I’ve covered him. It’s a professional relationship that dates to his days as a sous-chef at Vetri and his first collaboration with Cook at Marigold Kitchen in 2005; long before he was named the most outstanding chef in America (the James Beard Foundation awarded that title in 2017); and well before he and Cook opened Zahav, the four-bell temple of modern Israeli cooking short-listed this year for the Beard prize as America’s most outstanding restaurant. (The winner will be announced May 6.)
The “research and development trip” has become a fashionable perk for many American restaurateurs who want to ground a new project in the original context of an international inspiration. Opening a pasta restaurant? Ciao, Italia! Building a yakitori-katsu bar? Let’s go izakaya hopping in Tokyo.
Cook and Solomonov did just such a research trip — complete with nights in bedouin tents and youth hostels — before they launched Zahav, 11 years ago this week. But few Americans at that juncture, including potential investors, had any clue as to what modern Israeli cuisine could be: “ ‘You mean, like, a falafel restaurant?’ ”
In truth, the duo didn’t entirely know themselves back then what their “modern” concept eventually would become. But elements from that trip helped lay the foundation for Zahav’s success. And they have since helped define for the world the thrilling potential of Israeli flavors, put Philadelphia on the national dining map with countless accolades and acolytes, and are still, a decade later, one of the city’s most coveted reservations.
This R&D trip, though, would be different. After all their success — the books; the Israeli food documentary; an empire that now also includes Abe Fisher, the Rooster, and multiple branches of Dizengoff, Goldie, and Federal Donuts — they had reached a stage in their company’s growth where, with three more concepts coming in 2019, they needed their next generation of young chef-managers to experience firsthand the place that had brought them this far.
And after years of saying no, this time I wanted to go, too.
In 2005, I wrote about the heart-wrenching Passover Seder Solomonov cooked in homage to his younger brother, David, an Israeli soldier who was killed two years earlier on Yom Kippur by a Hezbollah sniper — a traumatic event that launched him on this culinary and personal mission to rediscover his Israeli roots. I’d covered Solomonov’s very public recovery from drug addiction, and have charted his subsequent professional triumphs.
This trip offered a rare glimpse of the star chef in his element at the precipice of another milestone award, embracing his grown-up role as mentor to some passionate young chefs whose creative lightbulbs, in turn, were about to light up.
It was a chance to pull back the curtain on the mysterious process of finding the inspirational moments and flavors that go into conceiving new restaurants. It was also a singular opportunity to experience the ultimate expert’s essential guide to a three-day flavor trek across Israel — an almost inhumanly paced 36-stop carnival Solomonov promised would give me the “meat sweats” at night.
My participation was not without pause. As a restaurant critic, maintaining a clear distance between myself and those I cover has always been a key to fair reviews. This remains true even as my quest for anonymity has eroded gradually over the years, especially in places like Zahav that I’ve reviewed multiple times.
Going to Israel with the CookNSolo crew would alter that. The Inquirer would pay for all my expenses, as it always does. Our strictly professional relationship continues. But to preserve fairness, it means I will not write the initial reviews of the restaurants that eventually come from this trip — K’Far, the Rittenhouse bakery-cafe set to open by July; Merkaz, an Israeli sandwich shop in Midtown Village planned for September; and Laser Wolf, a Kensington grill house slated for the end of the year.
Someone else will do that for The Inquirer and Philly.com. (I didn’t do Zahav’s initial review, either, because a friend was the general contractor.) I’m willing to relinquish a few reviews for the chance to do some things I’ve never done in my two-plus decades as a critic. I’d get to see for myself this contentious but magical place where food, identity, and politics often intersect in both uncomfortable and hope-affirming ways. I’d also gain a far deeper understanding of what drives this duo, including one of the most compelling individuals I’ve ever covered.
We stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv at 6:30 a.m. By 11 a.m. — already 10 stops into our eating adventure — we were pushing the limits of our jet-lagged appetites, whether we realized it or not.
“We’re getting a lot done, and I don’t feel super-stuffed yet,” Solomonov said, striding through Carmel Market in Tel Aviv on the way to a bowl of Yemenite soup with spongy rounds of flatbread called lachuch.
“We’re going harder than the hobbits, yo!” said Camille Cogswell, 28, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef who will be executive chef at K’Far. Along with Henshaw, 29; Dizengoff chef Henry Morgan, 26; and CookNSolo culinary director Caitlin McMillan, 30, we were eagerly keeping pace.
In just five short hours, we had already experienced a week’s worth of breathtaking flavors. The warmth of fresh hummus for breakfast at Abu Hassan near the ancient port of Jaffa, where we used raw onion petals to scoop a masabacha of whole chickpeas swimming in lemony tahina. Fresh-baked clouds of crunchy-gooey meringues at Konditoria Albert. A feast of borekas at Borekas Penso that sent buttery flakes of sesame-dusted pastry flying into the air as we chomped through the triangular and spiral-shaped turnovers on our way to creamy hearts of feta, mushroom, and spinach.
Our noses were piqued by six kinds of paprika, earthy yellow hawaij powder, and an herbaceous wild za’atar that were scooped off the multicolored peaks of spice mounds. There were brilliant red strawberries, shiny fresh dates, and the deep-purple gush of fresh-pressed pomegranates. All the better to counter the halvah, syrup-soaked cheese knafeh, and fried-to-order Tunisian burika, onto which a raw egg was dropped with a cook’s dramatic incantation: “One, two, three, hallelujah!”
Most of us were seriously flagging by the 1 p.m. shawarma course at Hakosem, our 14th stop of the day, when someone in the crowd spotted my 76ers shirt and yelled, “Trust the Process, baby!”
The ever-frenetic Solomonov needed no encouragement, lowering his shades to mug for selfies with fans on the street (yes, he’s a celebrity in Israel, too), and simultaneously sharing pictures of every morsel with his 46,000 Instagram followers. (“blew my mind”; “Best Evah!”; “my stomach is like ‘hell naw’ #borekaslife”)
Cook, who uses no social media, has no tattoos, and frequently goes hours without saying a word — essentially Solomonov’s opposite and perfect business partner — could only look at his best friend and nod: “I need a nap.”
A few hours later, we were gorging again at a steakhouse called Itzik Hagadol (“Big Isaac”), one of the major inspirations for Laser Wolf.
Henshaw, who will be Laser’s chef, gazed in awe at the marbled slabs of meat in the front window, then basked in the overwhelming array of two dozen salads that swarmed our table around a long plank of coal-grilled meats that held buttery porterhouse, myriad kebabs, and grilled chunks of melty goose liver.
“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about,” Solomonov said, calling out each thread of the colorful diaspora before us: Moroccan carrots, creamy Russian salad, coriander-crusted Libyan falafel, garlicky Romanian kebabs, smoky Turkish eggplant, Iraqi laffa bread, french fries, hummus, Palestinian chopped salad. “This is Israel on a table!”
I woke early the next day to the morning call to prayer echoing through Old Jaffa’s streets.
Solomonov and Cook had already returned from their daily six-mile run on a Tel Aviv beach. A van was waiting to carry us to northern Israel, where we’d stop, among other places, in the city where Solomonov still owns his mother’s old apartment. The Day Two munching tour resumed at the same whirlwind pace.
We had a perfect chicken schnitzel sandwich for breakfast, which McMillan, CookNSolo’s culinary director, admired for its micro-crust and juicy shred of cucumbers. (“Look at the knife cuts!” she said.) We paused for a “hit of shawarma” at a stand where the intricate spicing was imprinted on chef Morgan’s brain for future use with a cauliflower sandwich. We visited the ancient Crusader port city of Akko for the distinctively rustic hummus at Areen Abu Hmid Kurdi’s sky-blue restaurant below the old lighthouse, then went to her husband’s 110-year-old spice shop, Kurdi & Berit, and inhaled the intoxicating aromas of fresh cardamom, wild sumac from the Galilee, and spicy Madagascar cinnamon.
We shared profoundly earthy Yemenite soup at Opera restaurant in Hadera with Michael’s father, Mordechai “Everyone Calls Me Solo” Solomonov, a Bulgarian-Israeli who lives nearby. He shares his son’s intense eyes and sarcastic sense of humor: “Unicorn dust!” was his translation when I asked Opera owner Rachel Yaakovi for her secret ingredient.
A bakery in Solomonov’s “old hood” of K’Far Saba, simply called Cake Center, nearly moved Cogswell to tears with its stunning variety of bureka sandwiches, cream puffs, date bars, and glistening rugelach. “This is what I came for,” the pastry chef said.
Solomonov had also brought us to K’Far Saba to connect with his past. He settled into a somber calm as we walked down Weizmann Street.
“This was the last place we were really together as a family,” he said, recalling the days he and his brother and mother, Evelyn Solomonov, who died in 2015, shared an apartment after his parents divorced. “Being back here allows me to breathe and feel a little settled.”
Solomonov, who had dropped out of the University of Vermont after an overdose and was already struggling with addiction, found his first glimmer of culinary purpose here at an entry-level baking job.
K’Far Saba is also where his brother is buried. And as we entered the memorial park fringed with tall cedar trees, Solomonov walked ahead, bent down and gave his brother’s headstone a long embrace and a kiss.
As he placed a tiny stone on the grave in the Jewish tradition and his colleagues went to do the same, all the frenzied eating of the prior 30 hours suddenly seemed so trivial. It was also intimately intertwined.
We wouldn’t have been there — and Zahav likely would not exist — had Solmonov chosen a different path in the aftermath of his brother’s death. His first impulse was to enlist in the Israeli army. He’d begun running Kelly Drive with bricks in his backpack to train — before returning home to smoke crack.
“I don’t know if I wanted to die his death to be closer to him, but I felt totally guilty.”
It was Solomonov’s then-boss and mentor, chef Marc Vetri, who talked him out of moving to Israel over a branzino dinner at Center City’s Melograno.
“He said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to stay in Philadelphia and make something of your life if you want to honor your brother and your country.’ And he was right. What we’ve done in the kitchen since then has been so much more productive for Israel than had I become a soldier.”
Solomonov said creating a restaurant reminds him of watching old music videos where the story unfolds in a fast-motion montage of roadies building the ladders, backdrop sets, and stage. Translating the emotion of this place to his young crew of restaurant roadies was as essential to the integrity of their production as all the recipe inspirations they might also take away.
“All this stuff — going to the shawarma place next door, hanging out with my dad, going to the cemetery — it’s all the culmination of thousands of years of history, my family’s heritage, all our commonality and conflict, the beautiful food, extreme tragedy and friendship all wrapped up in the same thing. I feel it in my heart and can’t quite reproduce it — it just sort of exists here.”
The mere mention of Israel stokes controversy, and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians remains among the most divisive political subjects in both the United States and the Middle East. During our trip, a contentious campaign for Israel’s prime minister roiled across headlines in the background.
But such issues were distant from the minds of the CookNSolo entourage as we traveled within the comfortable bubble of an eating mission that navigated away from the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. One cannot journey far in Israel, though, without politics and food bumping up against each other, to the point where calling the ubiquitous chopped salad “Arab” or “Palestinian” is controversial.
Solomonov hasn’t shied away from engaging in difficult discussions and expanding his point of view to somehow define his role.
“Especially as it concerns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, “there’s a human piece of this whole thing we’re missing [that food can bring] that often gets muddled entirely by politics where it’s not in everybody’s best interest for peace. I believe in dialogue.”
Solomonov’s deepening friendship in Philadelphia with Reem Kassis, the Jerusalem-born Palestinian and Wharton-educated author of The Palestinian Table (Phaidon, 2017), was especially on his mind as we pulled into El Babur, a renowned Palestinian restaurant in Yokne’am Illit.
“To say that I have the right to independence and identity and homeland and then this person who I essentially share all those things with doesn’t have that official right — it’s a huge problem for me,” he said, as the banquet began unfolding before us.
Dishes of sautéed wild mallow and other foraged greens made their way around the table along with nigella-crusted laffa. Spiced raw lamb kibbeh nayyeh arrived topped with a warm ragu of cinnamon-scented lamb.
“Now that I have this relationship with someone I care about on a much greater level than political,” he said, noting that their children are playmates, “it’s difficult to look her in the eyes and say, ‘I’m entitled to something that you’re not.’ ”
A stunning dish of tiny zucchini stuffed with goat arrived over a mound of cracked green wheat called freekeh that was drizzled in the creamy warmth of goat yogurt. A rendition of freekeh at Zahav is what first inspired Kassis to reach out to Solomonov to begin with: “It reminded me of home,” she later told me in a phone conversation. “Michael’s definitely now one of my best friends in Philadelphia.”
The entire dining room at El Babur was clapping in anticipation as a giant pot was brought to the center of the room and flipped. A mountain of grape leaves and lamb chops tumbled out. Then the restaurant’s famous potpies were brought tableside, where the pastry lids were peeled back to reveal lamb kebabs wrapped around cinnamon sticks as an ambrosial steam cloud rose above our table.
“Look behind you,” Solomonov said, pointing to a table nearby where four Israeli soldiers were eating, their assault rifles perched beside them like umbrellas. “It can be done. The act of eating and hospitality transcends politics.”
Then Solomonov walked into the kitchen, where he FaceTimed Kassis to introduce her to the chefs.
“I grew up eating at El Babur as a girl, and I was homesick,” Kassis recalled later. “He wanted to show me what they were eating.”
She cautioned that “food diplomacy” in itself could go only so far: “A shared plate of hummus is not going to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict disappear. The only thing food can do is make it easier to have conversations about those uncomfortable realities.”
But Solomonov is eager for the next step. He took his first trip to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank later in the trip with a Palestinian American friend, and was stopped at a border check for the first time ever on his return to Jerusalem.
“Kebab! Kebab! Kebab! Have you heard the joke about kebabs? You need to know it if you’re going to open a kebab shop in Philadelphia!” David Bitton said as he brought us platters of skewered meats at Morris, the tiny corner grill he owns in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda.
Bitton told of two friends, Moishe and David, who became rival kebab shop owners.
Moishe’s place was perpetually busy (“Kebab! Kebab! Kebab!”) while David’s business was always dead.
“What’s your secret?” David asked.
“My recipe is simple,” Moishe shrugged. “I add 50 percent meat, lots of spices, and 50 percent s—.”
“Oh!” David replied. “You add meat?!”
Our table erupted in laughter, threw back complimentary shots of arak (seltzer for the vigilantly sober Solomonov), then settled into a quiet as we nibbled through platters laden with the kind of secondary meats — hearts, livers, two kinds of testicles (turkey and veal) — prized at Jerusalem market grills that are connected to butcher shops, like Morris, where nothing is wasted.
Cook, with trademark deadpan, delivered a pragmatic verdict on a lingering question from this R&D quest: “I don’t think there’s much of a market for turkey testicles in Philadelphia.”
Cogswell could only chuckle and register that line as one of many on this trip that had given her a greater appreciation for Cook. He’s an accomplished chef in his own right, but also the business-minded half of the partnership, and some on the trip previously had not spent nearly as much time with him as they had with Solomonov.
“They’re like two different kinds of dads,” she said. “Steven is so quiet and introspective. But then he’s like suddenly such a jokester.”
Cultivating that personal bond was absolutely one of Cook’s goals when he agreed to spend the time and money to take the team on this journey. (Solomonov also stayed an extra week to lead a group of tourists on a far more luxurious and leisurely tour to help subsidize the business trip.)
“I’m getting older, but the industry is still young,” said Cook, 45. “It was good to be in a different setting, because I deal with people best on a one-to-one basis.”
The common language that paced their subtle evolution as a team, though, was the relentless pursuit of flavors to shape their new creations. And we had come to Jerusalem for our busy final day in search of what Cook called “the Holy Grail of Rugelach.”
We took a detour on the way and found tahini enlightenment at an artisan mill called Al-Yasmin in Abu Ghosh, where we savored fresh-crushed organic sesame paste trickling directly from the spout below a massive turning millstone; tasted the novelty of rare tahinis tinted brown, red, and black; and devoured the greatest halvahs of our lives, including pistachio-crusted loaves of sweet sesame paste that were at once creamy and crystalline.
We experienced the religious sites, too, from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, where, just outside, some Philadelphia tourists stopped Solomonov for another selfie.
And we lunched at Azura, where Henshaw and the others awoke to the elusive spirit of the Israeli soul food they’d been working on for years, and realized how much farther they still had to go: “Our ceiling to get better with this food is high,” Morgan said.
And they were far more inspired than discouraged, knowing Solomonov and Cook had already prepared them well.
“This trip gives me so much confidence,” said Henshaw, who’d rebounded nicely from the shame of his kubbe reckoning. “It means so much for both my profession and daily life.”
“I’m trying to absorb it all,” McMillan said. “To go on a trip like this with people who care so much, who are like family to me, is very special.”
Special would also describe the warm Jerusalem chocolate rugelach we sought out in the Machne Yehuda. These coveted sweets are among the ultimate emblems of Israeli hybrid cooking, the familiar Eastern European cookie rolls transformed here with puffier yeasted dough, then thoroughly soaked Middle Eastern-style in sweet syrup.
The goal for Cogswell was not so much copying the famed rendition from Marzipan Bakery as tasting myriad other variations to calibrate her own rendition, dialing back the syrup and ratcheting up the chocolate intensity for K’Far. No one warned me, though, that even the most modestly soaked rugelach was likely to squirt hot streams of chocolate syrup at first bite.
After a few bakeries, my sauce-stained shirt was an embarrassing sketch pad of dogged research. Cook regarded my shirt with the kind of amused look reserved for amateurs.
“Well,” he said with a wry smile, “you’ll always have Israel.”
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Years with CookNSolo: 5
Previous job: Culinary director, CookNSolo
New role with company: Same
Israel takeaway: “Seeing the people who run these little stalls that make just one or two things and executing them perfectly with so much passion and just caring so much about their craft inspired me. I’m trying to be more focused now, too. Just do one thing at a time and do it the best I can.”
Post-trip R&D: McMillan has turned that focus toward two cornerstones of CookNSolo’s restaurants: falafel and pita. She’s added more inner fluff to Goldie’s herbed falafel balls, as well as a more enduring crunch (an aspect that in the past I’ve criticized as inconsistent). These are an improvement. The pitas, meanwhile, soon to be made at one CookNSolo commissary instead of individually at each location, took a major step forward with a more pillowy Israeli texture. They’re softer inside, with English muffin-like holes, and have stretchy pliancy to accommodate stuffings, but also retain a well-developed flavor from slow-fermentation the team had already developed in Philly, and preferred to the quicker-rise versions they tasted in Israel. A passion fruit-goat’s milk yogurt smoothie that stopped McMillan in her tracks at Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem will make a cameo at the forthcoming K’Far as a refreshingly tart and floral whip of soft-serve dusted with white chocolate shavings. Yum.
Hometown: Bethlehem, Pa.
Years with CookNSolo: 4½
Current job: Chef de cuisine, Zahav
Next role with company: Executive chef, Laser Wolf
Israel takeaway: “How clean the flavors were — how everything we tasted wasn’t fussy, but was so well seasoned and executed perfectly. Just salt, lemon, and that’s it!”
Post-trip R&D: Inspired by a meal at Ytzik Hagadol, Henshaw is diving deep into reinterpreting a dozen salatim vegetable salads to accompany the grilled meats at the forthcoming Laser Wolf, and subtle touches drawn from small flavor moments he encountered in Israel are everywhere. The use of fresh chiles, rather than dried peppers, creates a punchier harissa. Ginger and cardamom lend extra layers of complexity to a more mildly spiced schug green chile paste. He ratchets up the smoke and char in his eggplant baba ghanoush. Fistfuls of mint and dill for shaved cucumber salad evoke Hadera’s Opera restaurant, while a mashed pumpkin cherchi lit with the salty tang of preserved lemon is his tribute to a condiment he ate at a fried borika stand in Tel Aviv. All are a stunning backdrop of fresh flavors to a dry-aged rib eye grilled over the coals and drizzled with a sauce of natural juices whisked with one of the trip’s prize souvenirs — a rare “red” tahini ground from slow-toasted organic sesame seeds at Al-Yasmin mill in Abu Ghosh.
Years with CookNSolo: 3½
Current job: Executive chef, Dizengoff (a.k.a. “DizenDaddy”)
New role with company: Executive chef, Merkaz and Dizengoff
Israel takeaway: “The food is so good over there, I realized we have such a high ceiling to reach for and that we can improve every day. The pita breads were so fluffy, they were like a crib for their stuffings.”
Post-trip R&D: Morgan’s development for the sandwich-driven concept of Merkaz has focused on two future menu staples. The sabich features a pita stuffed with a thick slice of fried eggplant that’s both crisp and lusciously moist and fleshy inside as it cradles slices of a haminado egg brined in coffee and mint over chopped tomato salad and an almost curried amba sauce. A cauliflower riff on shawarma fragrant with fenugreek and turmeric spice, is lined with harissa spice and drizzled in cooling yogurt tzatziki — a combination of satisfying textures and such savory warmth, it’s a good bet to become Philly’s next vegetarian “it” sandwich when Merkaz opens this fall.
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Years with CookNSolo: 3
Previous job: Pastry chef, Zahav (and winner of last year’s James Beard Award for rising star chef)
New role with company: Executive chef, K’Far
Israel takeaway: “I didn’t really understand the syruping of [Jerusalem rugelach] until we got there. And oh my gosh, they were soaked! Just dripping!”
Post-trip R&D: Michael Solomonov says Cogswell makes the closest thing he’s tasted to his grandmother’s burekas, and her latest rendition of the flaky, sesame-speckled turnovers is even more improved by a creamier whipped filling of Bulgarian feta. Cogswell’s search for the holy grail of Jerusalem rugelach, meanwhile, has landed on a decidedly personal interpretation. The fine layers of her tightly rolled yeasted dough are less puffy and less drenched with syrup than the Israeli versions. But they are still plenty soaked. And the far higher quality of chocolate she uses to ribbon these three-bite wonders make her rugelach one of the most dangerous chocolate delivery devices Philadelphians have ever known.