Monday, March 12, 2012

A Middle Eastern Oasis in Society Hill

Chef Solomonov is also one of the brains behind Federal Donuts in South Philly

Earlier this Spring, Craig LaBan, The Inky's omnipotent restaurant critic, awarded our fave local eatery, Zahav, his coveted four bells accolade.  This tidbit of news gave us the excuse to doorstep Zahav's chef and owner, Michael Solomonov and quiz him about Life, Love and the Universe.

What brought Chef Solomonov to Philadelphia from his native Israel we asked? "An ex-girlfriend from Mount Airy," he replied.  (He then went on to marry another Philadelphian who persuaded him to stay in our fair city.)  And how did he wind up perched atop a hill and sandwiched between the two Society Hill towers?  The Towers management invited him to check out the space when the previous trattoria folded.  Chef Solomonov, or simply "Chef" as everyone calls him in his restaurant, was excited by what the previous owners had left behind: "The pizzeria had its own wood burning pizza stove, which means we can bake fresh flatbread all night."

In fact, our interview took place in front of this same fiery furnace on a packed Saturday night.  I dripped perspiration; "Chef" calmly fielded my questions while simultaneously scrutinizing dishes (every single dish passes under his nose), rolling and baking flatbread (called Laffa), serving mezze starters and co-ordinating orders between servers and sous-chefs.  The speed and efficiency of the whole operation was bedazzling...

What makes Israeli food so special?  "You've got to remember that Israeli food is a combination of food from many different cultures.  It draws from North Africa, from Ethiopia, for example and East Africa and other Middle Eastern cultures, such as Yemen -- and European food has influenced the Israeli kitchen too," said Chef.

And where did Chef learn to cook..? "From my Grandmother," he replied.  "She was a Separdhic Bulgarian.  She used to make Balkan pastries and beef and lamb sausage Bulgarian-style.  We used to have Borekas, one of her signature dishes on our menu, but when she passed away last year we removed it from the menu."

Zahav's own signature dish is Fried Cauliflower with Labaneh (a thick middle eastern yoghurt flavored with herbs, spices and lemon). I've tried many times to reproduce this dish at home from memory, but never managed to replicate any of Zahav's sensational mezze (small tapas-like dishes).  As Chef explains: "On every street corner in Israel there is always someone selling fried cauliflower.  Perhaps we fry it at a slightly hotter temperature and our Labaneh may be slightly different, but essentially we're serving that same traditional Israeli dish." 

Zahav emulates the experience of a bustling middle eastern market.  "Before opening, we flew the entire staff to Jerusalem to visit an open air food market in the chaotic hour before Sabbath - to understand and experience our food."  The photo of their experience takes pride of place in the restaurant which, with its turkish lighting, drapes and painted brickwork, is deliberately evocative of a bazaar.

DO try this at home...glorious fried cauliflower for recipe, see below

Yemenite soup
Zahav's menu features many foods grilled over coals.  Must-trys include their hangar steak, kebobs, chicken shishlick with figs, almond, carrot pilaf, not to mention their spiced eggplant.  The idea is to order a collection of small plates (these are moderately priced at between $8-10 a pop) and then you mix and match dishes and share it around the table.  Not sure what to order, then try one of two recommended tasting menus at $35 or $45 per person - full menu here.

Chef Solomonov continues to rack up recognition for his culinary skills.  In 2011, the prestigious James Beard Foundation nominated Solomonov as their "Premier Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region."

So where next for Chef?  Where next in terms of global culinary domination?   "One day I would love to open a restaurant in Jerusalem and earn a Michelin star."

You know what?  We'd put money on him doing it.

Zahav was packed even at 5.30pm on a Saturday night. 

Fried Cauliflower (Serves 4)

1 head cauliflower
Vegetable oil for frying
Kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 cup Labaneh (Greek Yoghurt is probably the closest approximation to this and is readily available)
1 tbsp each chopped dill, Italian parsley, chives, mint
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the Labaneh, puree the garlic with the lemon juice and let it stand for 15 minutes.  Add the Labaneh and the chopped herbs.  Pulse in food processor to mix thoroughly.  Season to taste with salt and fresh pepper. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot to 350 degrees.  Remove the cauliflower florets from the core and separate the florets so that they are approximately 1 inch in diameter (i.e. they are all approximately the same size and dimensions).  Fry the florets for about 4 mins or until they turn golden brown.  Remove florets from oil with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Season immediately with salt.  Serve with prepared Labaneh.

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