Zahav keeps thrill of discovery alive
Zahav is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.
Part of me is jealous of the couple beside us. And not because their date seems to be going well. The look of stunned pleasure on their faces as they discover for the first time some of the now-classic modern Israeli dishes at Zahav is priceless. I remember that feeling well.
With eyes wide in wonder as exotic new aromas waft like a warm Jerusalem breeze across their Society Hill table, they dig hungrily into the myriad little dishes of salatim — roasted beets enriched with tahini; charred eggplants perfumed with paprika smoke; Levantine carrots bright with orange, pine nuts, and chilies. They wrap warm laffa bread fresh from the taboon oven around their fingers and dip into the cuminy silk of hummus topped with fresh green chickpeas and the funky kick of house-fermented harissa heat. They savor the fried cauliflower with dilled labneh sauce, the pistachio-dusted haloumi with pickled strawberries, an adventure skewer of grilled duck hearts, and then the epic shoulder of lamb with chickpeas glossed in its deeply smoky and tart pomegranate braise.
Such powerfully unique flavors, paired with outgoing service, Israeli wines, and a lively spirit that fills this glowing glass box of a room with a flickering energy that sets the standard for casual yet still special dining, are what elevated Zahav to four bells in 2012.
But as I took a bracing sip of a za'atar-infused G&T that recent night, I realized I wasn't jealous at all so much as heartened. Because, despite its rise to national renown, and the expansion of Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov's other concepts (Dizengoff and Federal Donuts), Zahav remains Solomonov's primary kitchen home and continues to evolve.
That is why Solomonov's anointment this year as the best chef in America by the James Beard Foundation is one I wholeheartedly endorse — or, at least, the notion that he certainly belongs to this country's elite class of culinary geniuses. And he is hardly resting on his holy hummus.
The ever-morphing haloumi lately comes wound inside a crackling nest of kataifi phyllo with pickled peaches. Were those warm nuggets of crisp lamb belly sparking the cool lamb tartare scented with allspice and mint? The kebabs are great as ever, but an extra dose of dry-aged beef fat adds deeper savor to the Bulgarian beef-lamb kofta; ground chicken skin and sumac elevate the chicken shishlik. Something I'd not tasted, spice-cured foie gras roasted over coals then streaked with sweet carob, hit another level of decadence.
And then I feasted on the veal chops dry aged in a bastirmalike blend of earthy fenugreek and chocolaty dried Urfa peppers. The thick pale chops are slow-roasted to a hauntingly juicy delicacy before a smoky flash on the grill and then a finishing touch of torator, a walnut-tahini sauce piqued with white anchovy.
It was like a luxurious Israeli-Ottoman riff on vitello tonnato, and a compelling alternative to the legendary pomegranate-braised lamb shoulder as centerpiece of a four-course mesibah tasting, still one of the city's best multicourse dining values at $56 ($60 for the lamb). It's also proof that the thrill of discovery at Zahav, even for longtime repeat customers, is as fresh and vivid as ever.