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K’Far review: Israel’s all-day cafe culture comes to Rittenhouse

K'Far starts with pistachio sticky buns and Yemenite lattes, moves on to Jerusalem bagel grilled cheese, then ends on spiced fish and maple syrup-soaked konafi.

The Jerusalem grilled cheese dish is shown at the K'Far Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pa. Tuesday, November 12, 2019.
The Jerusalem grilled cheese dish is shown at the K'Far Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pa. Tuesday, November 12, 2019.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Before sundown on Friday, Yemenite Jews pop pull-apart kubaneh dough in the oven, to wake up to freshly baked Sabbath bread. At K’Far in Rittenhouse, Michael Solomonov, Steve Cook, and Camille Cogswell do kubaneh a bit differently: The dough has been remixed into a Pullman silhouette, and unrelenting crowds have turned the Saturday specialty into a daily fixture. But the overnight bake is the same. As the loaves cook, the sugar and butter inside them caramelize so slowly you’d need a time-lapse video to witness the bread turning from all-purpose white to deep tan, not unlike Solomonov over the course of a summer surfing in Margate.

Cook and Solomonov have experience giving obscure Persian carbs Stroehmann’s-level name recognition. Did you know about laffa before Zahav opened? I didn’t, nor had I heard of kubaneh before eating at K’Far, the first of three Cook N Solo concepts opening by early 2020.

Named for the town of K’Far Saba and inspired by Israel’s round-the-clock café culture, K’Far opens at 8 a.m. with Cogswell butchering the brawny kubaneh into Texas toast slabs. She slathers some with cloud-like ricotta, a cushion for glistening purple figs, and layers others with ripe avocado, tomato, and thick, tangy labneh spiked with fiery schug. Drippy date molasses and tahini give another toast PB&J vibes. (At dinner, the same sesame-date duo goes black-tie with the addition of foie gras kisses and so many neon-green Sicilian pistachios it could glow in the dark.)

The toppings change, but the kubaneh is constant. That slow caramelization imparts the subtlest nuttiness, and the cut sides toast up sturdy, preventing the bossy sauces and syrups from soaking through the tender crumb.

The bread’s brilliance is no surprise. Cogswell, the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Rising Star award winner, is extraordinarily talented — and self-deprecating. When Cook and Solomonov approached her about K’Far, “I was totally taken aback,” she says. “I was really enjoying my position [as Zahav’s pastry chef] but also kind of struggling in my first role as a manager.”

But Solomonov had been testing Cogswell for years with his grandmother’s boreka recipe, which she reproduces with crinkly layers of dough that collapse around salty Bulgarian feta softened with sour cream and honey. The cheese-and-jam boreka is even better, its filling of cream cheese, feta, and cardamom-peach preserves conjuring Cuban guava pastry. Caramelized onion-and-Swiss chard and spiced potatoes round out the boreka portfolio, perfectly tasty but not as mind-meltingly delicious.

Cogswell bakes 200 borekas daily, double the amount from the first few weeks, when customers bought them up like Hamilton tickets. Should the pastry case be boreka-less, the tender rugelach vibrate with dark-chocolate flavor. The babka comes from the same dough, scented with orange zest. Nutty and bittersweet, the coaster-sized tahini-chocolate chip cookies are instant classics. Dip them into the gingery Yemenite Latte, a dashing mug of undercover pumpkin-spice.

Chewy, oblong, sesame-seeded Jerusalem bagels bookend three panini-pressed sandwiches. The smoked salmon and pickles on a caper-buttered bagel is fine. The gooey grilled cheese stuffed with roasted tomatoes, Kashkaval, and sharp cheddar, and the za’atar-and-schug spiced egg-and-cheddar are fantastic.

K’Far is tall and narrow, a mauve-and-emerald giraffe wearing rose-gold jewelry. You order at the register, grab a seat at the communal counter or bubblegum vinyl banquette, and the efficient staff delivers your food. Beware: At breakfast one Saturday morning, a frenzied customer tried to save seats as if they were lifejackets on the Titanic. General manager Yasmin Roberti, who started with Cook N Solo as a busser at Zahav, referees with grace.

Reservations soothe the frenetic energy at dinner, when the central question about K’Far comes home to roost: Can Cogswell, a pastry virtuoso, do savory?

Consider the evidence: Trapezoids of honeydew, plunged into Aleppo-peppered melon vinegar and set over sheets of basturma. The weeping fruit seasons the rosy dried beef with ferocious heat and acidity. Prosciutto and cantaloupe who?

The Arabic salad is equally relentless. Save the raw red bell peppers, I’d eat this mix every day: crunchy romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, Castelvetrano olives, feta, and Jerusalem bagel chips tossed with zingy sumac dressing and so much za’atar the bowl looks covered in felt. Grains of freekeh suspended in a tahini-thickened mushroom broth create a cozy mock risotto. I love the bristly seared maitakes on top, camouflaged among fresh cilantro and dill. A Jerusalem bagel and bowl of olive-oiled labneh and briny, jet-black lumpfish roe is the ultimate bread course.

So I’d say Cogswell can do savory. Things only go awry when spicing gets shy. More hawajj, the turmeric-based Yemenite blend, on the roasted cauliflower, please. A double coat of sour cherry glaze on the succulent lamb shank ornamented with pickled rose petals, as well. Where are the promised saffron and chamomile in the t’bit, a homey Iraqi Sabbath chicken-and-rice casserole? The surrounding wreath of Little Gem lettuce tossed with vibrant amba (pickled mango) dressing has more personality than the casserole, which features bouncy boneless chicken thighs with under-crisped skin.

Already those thighs have been swapped for beef cheeks, a better-suited protein, evidence this kitchen knows when something isn’t working. Plenty from the dinner menu is.

Stepping stones of dry-aged strip steak cross two assertive sauces, sweet-and-savory red pepper-walnut muhammara and dill-forward green tahina. It’s nice to see a fine steak, often a dinner-plate loner, out making new friends. A preparation typical of Moroccan restaurants in Israel, the chraime starts with peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, slowly cooked with tons of olive oil and Cogswell’s “Three Cs: cardamom, cumin, and caraway” until they meld into a fragrant magma. Hunks of cured cod poach and steam in the stew, turning opaque and flaky, then get finished with fried shallots, preserved lemon, cilantro, and mint.

Desserts are less elaborate than at Zahav, but they’re no less delicious. Breakfast pastries resurface à la mode: orange-apricot ice cream for the chocolate babka; spiced Turkish coffee ice cream for the walnut cake. Almond brittle and rosewater-quince jelly cover the supple malabi custard. For the konafi, mozzarella is encased in a frizzy sweater of crispy dough threads, blasted with pistachios, and drowned in dark Pennsylvania maple syrup. Sweet and salty, crunchy and squeaky, it’s something you could crush in a late-night haze, as you might in Israel. “It would be totally normal at 10 or 11 p.m. on a Thursday to go meet friends,” says Solomonov, “and those friends could be drinking and eating till 2 or 4 a.m.”

That late-night action may be the only facet of Israeli culture not imported to K’Far, where the latest weekday reservation is 9:45. Which works out anyway. The kubaneh need their sleep.