RATING |
This week, Rick Nichols rings the bells in place of Craig LaBan, who returns next week with a review of the Devil’s Den in S. Philadelphia.

At fortress Zahav, perched aloofly (up three flights of garden steps) above the cobblestones of Old City, Michael Solomonov, at 29, is burnishing his credentials as one of the city's most thoughtful chefs.

The evidence of his excellence mounts in matters large and small - in the addictively stretchy rounds of laffa, a flatbread hot from the oak-fired oven; in the cheeky sweetbreads - "They sort of have a taste of Chicken McNuggets," he offers - wrapped in crispy chicken skin; in creamy Egyptian rice stuffed into baby eggplant.

They could be, one and all, contenders for best in show in the category Gussied-Up Down-Home Middle Eastern.

There is, as well, the related matter of Solomonov's meticulously applied culinary field notes, and the happy result of his study of the soup-ways of the sainted Jewish grandmother.

It takes a leap of faith to peddle Israeli street food at such a remove from, well, the street. But Zahav is Hebrew for "gold," a tip-off that Solomonov (a former sous at Vetri, and later top gun at Marigold Kitchen, where his inner Sephardi first surfaced) is up to more than a glorified falafel joint beneath the Society Hill Towers.

Exactly what he is up to is a harder question. In Zahav's first three months, I've come by four times, each time to a different personality: First was the $50-per-person Mesibah ("party time") tasting in the airy, 100-seat main room, a marathon of stylish Israeli-style red pepper, beet and spiced carrot salads (eight in all), hot skewers, and an oversized heap of tender roast lamb shoulder.

Next was a lunch at the wood-plank bar - succulent chicken skewers charred just right over wood coals, and lemonnana, the ubiquitous Israeli lemonade, this one herby with lemon verbena.

Later came a tasting in the tomblike - and I don't mean that in a nice way - back room called the Quarter. This is Solomonov's showpiece, and the menu riffs off the region's traditions: The salty pork loin (yikes!) is cooked with grape leaves. The main room is kosher-style, if not kosher. In the 24-seat Quarter, shellfish boogie unashamedly with swine.

And while most of the tastes - a brisk Kumamoto oyster with an icy dollop of cucumber sorbet; the vegetarian menu's stylized latke with a smear of tomato-y shakshouka stew - are strikingly original and memorably delicious, the room itself had a bit of a chill: It said, "Approach on bended knee; plates suitable for framing."

It may be a foodie paradise. Nowhere in the city is anyone doing "modern Mediterranean" fare so adventurously. But I'm no foodie. And I don't enjoy bare, hammered-copper tabletops that freeze your forearms, and ergonomically impaired banquettes that make your back ache. (At a tidy $400 for the foursome!)

Still put off about that precious "fine-dining" detour (each and every tiny mezze joylessly detailed by our waiter), my wife and I dropped in one Sunday night after a long, hot day of biking.

We were tired. But I thought I owed Zahav - so ambitious in its agenda, so refreshingly fresh, so kitchen-competent - one more visit.

This time I found a hint of gold behind the glitter: It was in a crust of laffa, and a bowl of Yemenite chicken soup so sublime, so earthy and soulful, it transcended all that came before.

Solomonov, dark-eyed and earnest, was born south of Tel Aviv, and though he grew up near Pittsburgh, he views Zahav as an homage to the polyglot flavors of the homeland.

"Homeland," of course, hardly means homogenous: The Bulgarian Jews mix lamb in their ground beef kebabs, the Romanians stick to beef. Zahav's elastic laffa bread? It dethroned King Pita, compliments of emigre Iraqi Jews.

Navigating the menu, concedes Zahav's other partner, Steven Cook, can be taxing. The small plates (spicy lamb sausage, crisp haloumi cheese, fried cauliflower) are homey Israeli tapas. But who can tell? Suffice to say, you can get some hummus, luscious chopped liver with rye toast, and a moist skewer of pomegranate-glazed salmon with couscous for about $30. Add a beer or a smooth glass of Ken Forrester pinotage and you're at $45. (You can keep it even cheaper at an Israeli shawarma joint on South Street. But you get what you pay for.)

This is Zahav I, the Main Room. From the street it hovers blankly next to the Ritz Theater, a fortlike box, faced in limestone inside and softened by draped textiles, the rustic bar, the rosy hearth, and windows looking out on Old City's historic roofscape.

The menus are printed, a la Olga's Diner, on paper placemats. The waitstaff is in tourist-shop T-shirts, hip send-ups lost on the unhip set.

The food's authenticity can have a stubborn streak: Solomonov's Israeli chickpea hummus is heavy on tahini, light on lemon and garlic, making it far beanier than the Greek style some diners prefer: "But we haven't budged," he says.

There have been missteps, too. The lamb shoulder was fall-apart tender, but the flavor was disappointingly muted. The Moroccan "pie" of shredded rabbit and prune was limp. The Israeli tomato-cucumber salad was watery.

But, not a corner is cut here: Solomonov took his cooks on a culinary tour of Israel's ancient markets and home kitchens, encountering on the stove of his contractor's mother that magical chicken soup - seasoned at the start and finish with special Yemeni turmeric, black peppers and cumin - so enticing that he polished off, to his chagrin, five full bowls. (At Zahav, halved cippolini onions and chicken thighs are poached separately and added to fortify the stock, along with baby Yukon Gold potatoes that could pass for matzo balls.)

Not an effort is spared: The cocktails are devilishly ingenious. The Marble Rye's rye is patiently infused with toasted pumpernickel and caraway.

And that obvious commitment overwhelms its flaws. Zahav does so much right, so singularly and - in its rendering of a Jewish grandmother's unforgettable chicken soup - sometimes brilliantly. It's worth the climb up, if only to look down, indulgently, on the out-of-the-know Zahav-nots.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

.This week, Rick Nichols rings the bells in place of Craig LaBan, who returns next week with a review of the Devil's Den in S. Philadelphia.