From the time Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook announced plans for an Israeli restaurant last November, you couldn't open a magazine, leaf through a newspaper or surf a blog without reading about it.
Tales were told of Yemeni curry smuggled through customs. Food & Wine recounted the staff field trip to Israel. So did City Paper. Gourmet and Travel + Leisure sprung forth ink. Bon Appetit declared it among the top 10 summer openings, while the Inquirer blog The Making of Zahav tracked its development.
If there were an award for Most Hyped Restaurant of 2008, Zahav would win by a landslide large enough to swallow Nicaragua.
If you're looking for a story to bury the lovefest, get ready to be disappointed. "Zahav" is Hebrew for "gold," and to quote a certain freaky-deaky Dutch villain, I love gold.
Judging from the crowd in the airy window-wrapped dining room, so do plenty of others: Empty nesters, buttoned-up execs, Old City yuppies, Penn kids and members of the creative class sip tight lemon verbena juleps and nibble Syrian olives no larger than peanut M&Ms.
Solomonov, former chef at Cook's Marigold Kitchen and partners with Cook in nearby nuevo Mexican Xochitl, doesn't glad-hand. He stays in the open kitchen and cooks, delivering on the hype one za'atar-dusted treasure at a time: red-violet folds of basturma, thin-sliced beef air-dried in-house; lamb tartare quietly humming notes of allspice and cumin; smoky ground beef skewers studded with Persian pistachios; a lovely rabbit pastilla gift-wrapped in phyllo dough sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar.
Roast chicken is done justice with an air-chilled Canadian bird, 24-hour brine, za'atar massage and 15 minutes over open coals. The result is juicy and crispy in all the right places, with sumac onions and tangy green tehina keeping your tongue at attention.
Served for two, the whole chicken is one of three entree choices for the pre-fixe Mesibah ("Party Time") menu. Salatim ("salads") kick off the par-tay, seven Israeli tapas that range from everyday (sauteed potatoes, mushy eggplant) to inspired (cuminy Moroccan carrots and candy-sweet roasted red peppers). Hummus follows, then two mezes of the kitchen's choosing, entree and dessert. Request the New School, a blockbuster of fried shredded phyllo, labneh ice cream, pistachios, Valrhona chocolate and kumquat syrup. It's as innovative as this motherland tribute gets--except on Thursday nights when Solomonov does a modern Israeli menu in the Quarter, the restaurant's 24-seat private dining room.
Paper placemat menus and staff uniforms (Hebrew Coca-Cola tees) drive home the casual feel. As for the servers themselves, pick your poison: aloof and absent or verbose and hovering.
Solomonov doesn't walk on water. I ate some incredibly salty fried cauliflower, unpleasantly sharp chicken livers, a tough leg of lamb. My guest compared the bitter halvah (sweet sesame) semifreddo topped with gorgeous black-red Bings to the cherry-scented cigarettes favored by her Turkish ex-boyfriend. I couldn't disagree.
Fortunately, the flawed dishes have redeeming components. Those livers nuzzle perfect sweetbreads, and the lamb arrives over "jeweled rice" redolent of saffron and turmeric and mined with tart barberries and dried prunes.
Solomonov dispatched house baker Wes Johnson to Israel for two weeks to learn to work the dough of laffa, an Iraqi-Jewish flatbread. Cooked in the oak-burning oven, the round loaves rise gently into fluffy, chewy cushions.
The hummus-foul (pronounced "fool" ) isn't foul at all with creamy fava beans, while the warm, Turkish version trades olive oil for glorious melted butter.
Soothing mint tea and silty Turkish coffee are the de rigueur digestives. Legend says you can read fortunes in the patterns of the coffee grounds that gather in the bottom of a cup. Mine look black and wet. I'm no clairvoyant, but I can see more Zahav in my very near future.
Zahav's chef Michael Solomonov shows us how to make the restaurants tasty bulgarian kabobs in this week's Bon Appecheap.