Order hummus with salatim, small plates of salads that often begin meals in Israel, and in the mix appear carrots glazed with North African harissa and tabbouleh in the Lebanese style, heavy on the parsley. The region may face constant political strife, but on the plate unity reigns.
Now look more closely at the list of twenty or so mezze and grilled dishes. Woven among the Yemenite beef stew and fried cauliflower with herbed labneh (strained yogurt) are gems like house-smoked sable, paired with an oozing fried egg over a block of rich challah, and sweetbread schnitzel contrasted with piquant beet-brined egg. They harken to the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe who migrated to Israel (and who also, of course, informed the classic flavors of the American delicatessen).
And a filling of spiced chicken, apricots, almonds in the savory pastry called pastilla brings to mind the cooking of the Sephardic Jews who established themselves around the Mediterranean's western shores. Zahav makes no overtures about keeping its kitchens kosher, but incorporating the far-flung tastes of the Jewish diaspora into its menu illuminates the breadth of modern Israeli cooking.
Zahav is Solomonov's tribute to his homeland. He was born near Tel Aviv and then grew up in Pittsburgh. His family returned to Israel when Solomonov was a teenager, but he soon came back to the States to complete high school. Though he and business partner Steve Cook have triumphed with their growing Federal Doughnuts concept (doughnuts dunked in the fryer to order, plus killer fried chicken for lunch), Solomonov stays close to his roots. In mid-August he's opening a hummusiya called Dizengoff, and he's working on a documentary to air on PBS next year called The Search for Israeli Cuisine.
With a cookbook also scheduled for next year, Solomonov is poised to be the U.S. equal to Yotam Ottolenghi. The wonderful thing about Zahav, though, is how easily one can disappear into the food's earthy pleasures without knowing any of the chef's background or the cuisine's history.
After scraping the hummus bowl clean with shards of laffa, move on to gratifiers like griddled cubes of halloumi over molten date chutney with wisps of pickled onion and flashes of urfa, a smoky Turkish chile. Sip limonana, a minty lemonade, on its own or as a Jim Beam-fueled cocktail. Take a leap and try the duck hearts angled over a celery puree and matched with amba, a mango pickle. Come with a group and preorder an off-the-menu specialty—lamb shoulder smoked, braised in pomegranate juice, and served with tahdig, the irresistible Persian pilaf in which the rice is cooked to chewy crispness on the bottom. Leftovers are all but guaranteed.
The restaurant, perched over a cobblestone street in Philadelphia's historic Society Hill neighborhood, evokes the Levantine landscape with sandstone walls and limestone tiles but isn't over-designed. It sets a welcoming mood, an impression reinforced by the hospitable staff. Ten years from now, upscale-ish Middle Eastern restaurants may be a cliche; we may grasp Palestinean fava bean hummus and Lebanese herbed labneh with the same intimacy that we know Neapolitan pizza and Ligurian pesto. But in this watershed moment, when the distinct but tangled flavors of the region's many cuisines begin distinguishing themselves in our dining culture, we'll look back at Solomonov's Israeli breakthrough and say: Zahav was the one that upped the game.
Throughout the year, restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.