When the food trend movers and shakers predicted that cauliflower would be the new Brussels sprouts, they must have been thinking about James Beard award-winning chef Michael Solomonov’s fried cauliflower mezze with labne (strained yogurt), chives, dill, mint and garlic sauce, which is served at his Philadelphia restaurant Zahav (gold in Hebrew).
Seated facing the half-open kitchen, we initially ordered the $42-per-person pris fixe menu dubbed “Tayim” (delicious), which includes an assortment of salatim (small-plate salads) with hummus and flat Iraqi pita, mezzes, al ha’esh (meat or vegetables cooked on the grill/charcoal) and desserts. Coming from DC, it felt like a bargain.
Looking at the menu more closely, I didn’t see the lamb with pomegranate glaze so many friends had recommended. Our waiter never mentioned it. Did he forget? Or was it Philly’s best-kept (known) secret?
Worried about missing something big, I waived the waitress at the next table over. Turns out, the mystery lamb was a part of the chef’s “Mesibah” (party) tasting menu. Priced a tad higher, it includes the same assortment of salatim, mezzes chosen by the chef, half of a lamb shoulder (for two) that is brined, smoked and braised with pomegranate glaze and chickpeas and the chef’s choice of desserts.
If you’ve been to Israel, the salatim, flat Iraqi pita and creamy hummus will be familiar to you. If you haven’t, you will be astounded by the abundance, vibrant color, seasoning and freshness of the salads. Since I was born and raised in Israel and visit often, I was looking forward to the chef’s modern twists on Israeli cuisine, so I exercised restraint with the colorful prelude. It took some willpower, though, especially with the deep orange Moroccan-spiced cooked carrots, which kept calling for another bite, but the delayed gratification was well worth the wait.
The crispy grape leaves mezze stuffed with beef, pine nuts and paprika was brilliant. And the house-cured sable on fried-egg-stuffed challah French toast was so sublime that I even embraced the runny egg I usually shy away from. The last of the trio of mezzes was the outstanding charred, crisp cauliflower.
At Zahav, however, the real gold is the lamb shoulder with pomegranate glaze and chickpeas. It felt like an imaginary grandma had passed down an heirloom recipe to the chef. Think hamin or cholent (the slow-cooked Sephardic and Ashkenazic Shabbat stews, respectively) meets a chef’s touch. A big hunk of Seder- or holiday-worthy lamb shoulder that is crisp on the outside and melts in your mouth from the inside. The flavor of the brining runs delicately through and through. (Watch Solomonov prepare it here.)
When I made our reservation at Zahav, I didn’t realize it would coincide with the World Cup and Father’s Day. It was a bit of a cruel and unusual punishment to lug my husband Jonathan, who is both a big soccer fan and a father, on a two-hour drive up north to Philadelphia on that momentous weekend. Armed with an ESPN app and ear buds, Jonathan listened to the soccer broadcasts while driving and dining at Zahav. He was content, and I had a seat warmer as dining companion. It was all right!
Striking gold with the lamb made Jonathan’s “sacrifice” worthwhile. The next day, we had the shredded leftovers folded into omelets and diced into potato hash.
Stay tuned for Solomonov’s cookbook, coming out sometime in 2015. In the meantime some of his recipes can be found online through Food and Wine and The New York Times. On my next trip to Philly I plan to visit his fried chicken and donuts shop, Federal Donuts, as well as his other establishments. Rumor has it that Federal Donuts might be coming to DC, but sadly not Zahav.
Zahav, 215-625-8800, 237 St. James Place, Philadelphia, PA, Sunday to Thursday, 5 pm-10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 pm-11 pm.
Top photo: Salatim at Zahav. All photos courtesy of Zahav (Credit: Mike Regan).