PHILADELPHIA — If only everyone’s grief could be channeled into something as wonderful as what happened with Michael Solomonov, who had been cooking upscale Italian food at Philadelphia’s Vitri back in 2003 when his brother was killed while serving in the Israeli Army. After preparing a memorial dinner at his brother’s army base, Solomonov came back to Philadelphia with a desire to open what eventually became Zahav, the red-hot Israeli restaurant he co-owns with partner Steven Cook.
Designed to evoke the feeling of being in a hidden Jerusalem courtyard, the softly lighted restaurant has golden limestone floors and walls, dark wood tables, and colored glass hanging lanterns.
“In hindsight, I think I was paying homage to my brother,” says Solomonov, who was born outside Tel Aviv. “I wanted people to know more about Israel — the people, culture, and land my brother had died defending — and food is the best way.” But instead of offering just baba ganoush and shawarma, Solomonov creates dishes like pan-seared Haloumi cheese tossed with fresh apples and date-walnut vinaigrette.
“It’s Israeli food with influences from all the people who have migrated [to Israel] in the past 100 years,” says Solomonov. “Both the ingredients and the dishes we use are traditional to these countries” — Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Spain, the Balkans, and Palestine — “we’re just putting them together in ways that you might not see in Israel.”
With a menu comprising mainly small plates, sharing is the way to go, beginning with one of four hummus dips, such as the warm hummus-foul topped with fava beans and scallions. Solomonov began his culinary career in an Israeli bakery, so it’s no surprise that his house-baked laffa bread that accompanies each hummus arrives warm and beautifully constructed in thin, feathery layers. A selection of four-bite cooked vegetable salads add refreshment and range from cumin-spiced carrots to beets mashed with tahini, coriander, and pepper.
Nearly a dozen mezze come next, such as house-cured salmon with pickled watermelon rind, cucumber, and grapefruit. “You won’t find pickled watermelon in Israel, but you will find watermelon,” says Solomonov, “along with lots of cured salmon. So I took the very popular Israeli watermelon and feta salad and used salmon instead of the feta.” Also delicious are the deep-fried cauliflower florets — lacy, caramelized, and grease-free — accompanied with the Middle Eastern strained yogurt cheese, labaneh, zipped up with fresh garlic, chives, dill, and mint. The grilled duck hearts also shine, arriving even more velvety than duck breast and garnished with dates, crisp onions, and stone fruits. Another winner is the Israeli version of “toad in a hole,” a toasted challah square cradling a warm egg and topped with a creamy, cool, smoked sable salad.
Under the coal-grilled offerings is a duck kebab that is two small succulent patties of ground duck seasoned with pistachios and saffron. The stuffed quail also wins kudos for its tender juiciness and scrumptious filling of collard greens, quince, and mujadara, an Arabic dish of lentils usually cooked with groats, rice, and topped with sautéed onions.
For dessert, the halvah mousse parfait is layered with strawberry compote and topped with a crumbly fried chickpea praline, which tastes just like nut streusel. In addition to an enticing mix of seasonal cocktails, Zahav offers one of the largest collections of Israeli wines outside of Israel. Add superb service and excellent value, and you’ve got a culinary tribute to both a country and a fallen brother.
Zahav 237 Saint James Place, 215-625-8800, www.zahavrestaurant.com. Small plates $8- $12, tasting menu $39 per person.