You might just feel that you've landed smack-dab in the center of a Jerusalem courtyard. Not so. Instead, you're right in the heart of Philadelphia's Old City, where Israeli-born executive chef Michael Solomonov and Wharton graduate Steven Cook have opened Zahav, the exciting, new Middle Eastern restaurant featuring authentic Israeli cuisine. (In Hebrew, Zahav means "gold.")
Cool cream-colored Jerusalem stone rests under your feet; red, blue and amber glass lamps hang from the beamed ceiling; and the heavy wooden tables are engraved with palm trees, amphoras and pomegranates. An enormous colored photograph of a shuk where shoppers are jostling shoulder to shoulder hangs over the entrance to the kitchen. And though this is a random photograph, a young boy in the foreground wears a bright-orange kipah -- with the logo of the Philadelphia flyers.
Behind the leaded-glass window that runs almost the breadth of the room, you can see into the kitchen to watch Solomonov and his staff at work. The enticing aromas of shish kebab and fish sizzling over hot, natural hardwood coals, the brown-blistered Lebanese flatbreads baked in a genuine Arabic taboon on bricks heated by red-hot oak logs and the spices -- sumac, harissa, zhoug and zaatar, in aromatic dishes all made from scratch -- create the ultimate Middle Eastern dining experience.
Veteran restaurateur Solomonov (named "Best Chef 2006" by Philadelphia magazine and one of the country's "Rising Star Chefs 2007" by Restaurant Hospitality magazine) and Steven Cook, one of the city's rising restaurateurs, own and operate Marigold Kitchen and Xochitl -- two highly successful restaurants.
Why a Middle Eastern restaurant? Solomonov explains: "Nobody is doing this kind of food ... Israeli food which really only exists because of the influences of Persian, North African, Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian cuisines -- it's quite unique."
And to make certain that each dish is true to the flavors of Israel, the two flew Zahav's culinary crew to Israel for a 10-day "fact-finding food trip." Once there, they were off and running.
Notes Cook: "We ate in some local restaurants, but a lot of eating was done in people's homes, where we could poke around in the kitchens. The parents of floor manager Elon Gidi live in Ashdod, so we had a tableside view of food preparation and which appliances are used."
They returned with their bags packed, not with clothes, but with kitchen items like the Turkish coffee cups that are displayed on wall shelves, skewers for shish kebab, an orange juicer and a supply of native spices. Energized and enthusiastic, the crew was ready to introduce Philadelphians to authentic, sensational Israeli food.
Designer Elisabeth Knapp helped bring the partners' vision to life. Stone archways, a hidden terrace, the shadowy courtyard and the tantalizing menu help convey the sights and aromas of a Jerusalem cafe. Zahav's menu is a window into the variety of Israeli dishes clearly demonstrating Mideast influences.
"This is the food I grew up with," explains Solomonov. The green-and-white menu doubles as the placemat, just like in Israeli cafes. Starting with four varieties of hummus -- including a Turkish hummus served warm -- to hot and cold appetizers like Tunisian salad and crispy haloumi (sheep-milk cheese with dates and pine nuts) and eight varieties of shish kebab, each dish is cooked to perfection.
Desserts are irresistible. The chef's almond baklava is a chewy, praline-nougat-layer sandwiched between wafer-thin filo dough, while roasted sesame seeds infuse a tantalizing flavor into sesame ice cream.
You can choose from half-a-dozen fine dessert wines, as well as an impressive list of bourbon and Scotch whiskies. Arak, the traditional Israeli drink, is also available, as is Turkish coffee and fresh mint tea.
Since Israeli and Middle Eastern dishes rely on dairy products, vegetables and fruits, vegetarians have plenty of choices. Try the Kinneret shish kebab with salmon and pomegranate on a bed of couscous.
The Israeli food trip paid off in every respect. The crusty kibbeh on Zahav's menu was perfected by watching the cook in a mom-and-pop restaurant in Nazareth. That resulted in the purchase of an old-fashioned meat grinder, the kind that our grandparents used clamped onto the table edge. A cylinder had been molded and attached so that kibbeh crusts were pressed out in exact proportions and only needed to be filled.
Back in Northern Liberties, a local machine shop made the cylinder for the meat grinder. "They thought we were crazy," says Cook, "but they did it."
Solomonov and his staff now produce kibbeh that rivals any I've tasted in Israel -- crisp and crunchy on the outside, inside a warm spicy mixture of ground lamb and pine nuts.
Shish kebabs are grilled on Israeli skewers before sliding the seasoned meats and fish onto serving plates (relieving diners of a struggle to remove the items at the table).
No reservations are taken for the 10 seats at the bar and the 10 seats at the chef's counter, where diners can watch Solomonov and his staff in action.
"It's first-come, first-served," notes Cook. The Quarter, an intimate 24-seat space, is hidden from the main dining room by heavy red drapes. Inside, cozy banquettes and fabric draperies give the impression of a romantic, tented space. Here, guests can also enjoy a $65 prix fixe tasting menu that changes weekly.
Zahav is located at 237 St. James Place, but it's easier to find if you go to Second and Dock streets. You'll see it on the hill overlooking the Ritz Movie Theater. The restaurant is open seven days a week. The bar is open every night until 2 a.m. when cold snacks are available.
1 large Italian eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 cup vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 Spanish onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large red bell peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled, germ removed and slivered
1/4 cup good-quality smoked sweet paprika
1/2 cup sherry or red-wine vinegar
3 Tbsps. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped parsley, loosely packed
In a large mixing bowl, toss the eggplant slices with 1/4 cup of kosher salt.
Spread out the eggplant on a sheet tray lined with paper towels; allow to drain for 1 hour.
Heat half the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.
Brush the salt from the eggplant and fry half of the slices in the oil until both sides are well-browned, approximately 4 minutes per side. Drain the eggplant slices on paper towels to remove excess oil. Repeat with the remaining oil and eggplant.
Reserve 3 tablespoons of the eggplant cooking oil and heat in a wide pot over medium heat.
Add the onions, peppers and garlic, and cook slowly until softened and translucent. When the vegetables are tender, add the eggplant and paprika; continue to cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the vinegar and cook, stirring vigorously, until the liquid is evaporated.
Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and parsley.
Season to taste with kosher salt. Allow the eggplant mixture to cool. Serve slightly chilled.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 514; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 55 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 472 g.
Since poussins (French for a very young chicken) or 1-pound chickens are hard to find, I suggest using half a Cornish hen. Follow the directions below. In testing, 2 teaspoons salt or to taste was sufficient for a piquant marinade.
1 Spanish onion, peel and root removed
3 Tbsps. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsps. vegetable or grapeseed oil
3 Tbsps. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 poussin or very small chicken (less than 1 lb.), deboned and cut into eight pieces
2 long metal kabob skewers
ground sumac (optional, available at Middle Eastern supermarkets)
Using a food processor or blender, purée the onion, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper.
Cover chicken pieces with marinade in an airtight container; refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels.
Tightly thread 4 pieces of chicken on each kabob skewer.
Grill (preferably over charcoal) for approximately 4 minutes per side, or until the chicken is cooked through.
Serve with ground sumac or prepared tehina.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 634; protein, 39 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 52 g; cholesterol, 229 mg; sodium, 2,019 mg.
Masbacha means "to swim" -- a reference to the warm chickpeas "swimming" in the tehina. Sesame paste is available in supermarkets.
1 lb. dry chickpeas
1 Tbsp. baking soda
1 whole head of garlic with the skin on, plus one clove, skin and center part removed
8 Tbsps. of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 lb. unhulled sesame paste
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
To Make the Hummus: Cover the chickpeas and baking soda with at least double their volume of water and soak, refrigerated, for 18 hours. Drain chickpeas and rinse thoroughly in cold water.
Place chickpeas in a large pot with the whole head of garlic and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer chickpeas over low heat for approximately 3 hours, or until very tender.
Drain the chickpeas, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid and 1 cup of whole chickpeas.
Discard the garlic bulb.
In the bowl of a food processor, add 12 oz. of the sesame paste and the cooked chickpeas. Purée the mixture with the grapeseed oil and 4 tablespoons lemon juice, adding enough reserved cooking liquid to achieve a smooth, creamy consistency. Season to taste with kosher salt and ground cumin.
To Make the Tehina: Combine the remaining lemon juice and sesame paste with the garlic clove and 1/2 cup of warm water in a blender.
Blend at high speed until smooth, then add 1/2 cup olive oil. If the purée is too tight, adjust the consistency with additional warm water.
Season to taste with kosher salt and ground cumin.
To serve, spoon the hummus into a large shallow bowl. Using the back of a spoon, push the hummus to the edges of the bowl to create a well in the center. In a mixing bowl, toss the reserved chickpeas with the tehina sauce and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
Spoon the dressed chickpeas into the well in the center of the hummus.
Garnish the hummus with the chopped parsley and remaining olive oil.
Approximate nutrients (as appetizer) per serving: calories, 483; protein, 12 g; carbohydrates, 28 g; fat, 38 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 102 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, author of the recent Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.