Our server at Abe Fisher readied to take our order, and I looked up at her with the eyes of a child beseeching a grandparent for candy. "Is there any way we could get the short ribs for two?" I asked. The latest restaurant from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Philadelphia’s visionary chef-restaurateur duo, reframes and updates the cooking of the Jewish diaspora. Since it opened last September, the Montreal-style short ribs have been the showpiece most kvelled over — a $60-per-person bacchanal of smoked meat, vegetable garnishes, and rye bread that also includes first and second courses (and dessert) from the a la carte menus. It usually requires a minimum of four people and advance notice. But it was rainy, unseasonably chilly Monday night, and the mood in the dining room was mellow. "Let me ask the kitchen," replied the server.
Executive chef Yehuda Sichel said yes. (This was a random act of hospitality; I’m confident I went unrecognized as a critic.) We began combing through the options we could choose to precede the short ribs. A couple of dishes, including asparagus dressed in an egg sauce finished with paprika and almond slivers, hinted at the warm Mediterranean flavors of Sephardic Jewish cuisines. Most, though, sprang from the roots of Eastern European Ashkenazi foods and the assimilated spinoffs that became delicatessen classics.
Sichel took traditionally weighty recipes and lightened them into modern whimsies. A chunky dice of gravlax came tumbled with shards of deep-fried latkes and radish slices over scallion cream cheese the color of guacamole. A potent onion and pastrami jam offset the offal-ness of chicken liver mousse, its texture as smooth as frozen custard and so satisfying spread across thick-cut rye bread. The addition of smoked beef tongue to matzo brei with fried egg and maple syrup yanked the montage out of the breakfast realm. And for a little heresy against kosher dietary laws, the cooks snuck in corned pork belly to bite-size Reuben sandwiches delivered under a molten mantle of Swiss cheese.
Philosophically, the tour de force short ribs landed somewhere between the smoked meat at Schwartz’s in Montreal and the lush barbecue of central Texas. Cured for over a week and then both smoked and roasted, the deeply rendered beef arrived on a platter already sliced into magenta hunks. Each bite barely required chewing and left a halo of delirious, salty richness that saturated the whole palate. Accompaniments conspired to ease the intensity: gently sweet or vinegary mustards, sides of sauteed purple cabbage and pickled cucumbers with dill and red onions. Like a crab feast or bull roast, devouring this spread felt like an event.
Abe Fisher’s short ribs share a twin soul with the whole lamb shoulder served at Zahav, the flagship of Solomonov and Cook’s restaurant group, CookNSolo. The lamb is brined, smoked, braised in pomegranate juice with chickpeas, and then given a final blast in the oven to caramelize the exterior until it forms a sweet-and-sour shellac. This brute, too, gets a similar pageant of starter dishes, though these glorify the Israeli flavors that define the menu at Zahav: hummus, the array of small vegetable salads called salatim, some larger mezze, and, alongside the lamb, Persian saffron rice with the crunchy later of crust known as tahdig.
Like seeing the film of a director whose work I’d just discovered and loved, I wanted to experience everything.
I first savored the lamb and the feast that surrounds it last summer, and the dinner haunted me for the remainder of my travels last year. Few meals surpassed it. The memory made me long to return to Philly and eat my way through the budding brood of restaurants that Solomonov and Cook are slowing building. Like seeing the film of a director whose work I’d just discovered and loved, I wanted to experience everything these two were putting out in the world. And there was justification, since a pair of new CookNSolo restaurants had sprung to life since my previous visit: Abe Fisher and the hummusiya next-door called Dizengoff. Conveniently, a location of their cult-status Federal Donuts sits right across the street. And a return to the mothership, Zahav, would of course be in order.
The CookNSolo restaurants that exalt the Jewish culinary diaspora reap national acclaim, but the partnership has dipped into other cuisines over the last decade. They met in 2005 at Cook’s Philly solo venture, Marigold Kitchen; Solomonov was fresh from behind the stoves of Italian chef and impresario Marc Vetri. It was at Marigold that Solomonov began tapping the roots of his Israeli background. He and Cook collaborated with another chef on a Mexican restaurant, Xochitl, that didn’t last. They opened Zahav in 2008 to a rocky start but found footing as Solomonov settled in and stripped down early efforts at overly glitzed Middle Eastern interpretations. Before Federal Donuts in 2011, they opened Texas-centric Percy Street Barbecue with Erin O’Shea, the next chef at Marigold Kitchen after Solomonov moved on.
I skipped Percy’s; the near-pound of short rib I scarfed feverishly at Abe Fisher did me in for smoked meat on the trip. Instead the next day I headed back to the Rittenhouse Square area for a hummus lunch lower on the food chain. The setup at Dizengoff is basic: Sidle up to the counter, eyeball the daily-rotating menu of four or five choices of hummus toppings, and wait briefly for your Day-Glo red tray or to-go bag. The dining room is dim and tiny, cramped with two communal tables and their benches. But sticking around afforded me the immediate pleasure of the pita just snatched from the oven, so hot I could barely touch it as I ripped off chunks. But I couldn't resist its heat against the coolness of the hummus.
And this hummus, my god. As a starter at Zahav it helped solidify the restaurant’s popularity, and as a headliner it seems even more magnificent, with a texture so creamy from whizzing in lemon and tahini that the millennia-old idea of crushed chickpeas felt like a freshly devised novelty. I missed a day when lamb figured among the toppings, but I well enough enjoyed a kale pesto, chunky and forthright with garlic, and a second order with gentle chicken strips and a cucumber salad. The add-ons didn’t quite reach the revelatory heights of the bread and the hummus, but still: If this were within walking distance of my office I’d swing by for a $10 lunch (pita and pickles included) three times a week.
Then I strolled across the street for double-fried chicken dusted with za’atar, cake doughnuts plucked straight from the fryer and showered with spiced sugar, and cooled doughnuts covered in extravagances like raspberry glaze and Rice Krispies. What can I add to the encomiums already devoted to the fried-on-fried joys of Federal Donuts? In the best possible way, it’s the Yankee equivalent of chicken and waffles, but with international intrigue. If pressed to name preferences among the chicken’s dry seasoning options, I’d choose the heady, sesame-flecked za’atar over coconut curry or buttermilk ranch. My tastes veered to the chile-garlic veneer on chicken wings, rather than sweet-soy garlic or honey-ginger alternatives. And I loved vacillating between zingy bites of crackly bird and a hot doughnut, but ultimately I valued the simple perfection of the old-fashioned glazed doughnut (a star among the prepared doughnuts the restaurant calls "fancies.") If Solomonov, Cook, and their partners can maintain the quality and consistency, FedNuts outposts should exist in every corner of the cosmos.
Dinner at Zahav felt like meeting up with an old flame. Though I yearned for the lamb shoulder, ordering it again made no sense when so many other dishes beckoned. Among a half-dozen vegetable salatim, salt-roasted beets grated and mixed with tahini, lemon juice, dill, and mint bewitched with its silky textures; the combination will surely soon replace carrots and yogurt across the country as the luxe salad du jour. Grazing through mezze provided a global tour of CookNSolo's many inspirations. Chicken kibbe, which are essentially croquettes, came poised over a lemony, tahini-enriched sauce seasoned with amba, a thin mango pickle. The earthy tang echoed the true flavors of the Levant. Cobia crudo dotted with harissa and fava beans was all riff and playfulness. And smoked sable over pastry-like challah, which oozed yolk from a fried egg hidden inside, paid homage to Ashkenazi influences.
And I didn’t miss lamb. It first appeared raw in the form of kibbe naya — coarsely chopped and mixed with bulgur wheat — that we scooped with romaine leaves and dressed with zhough, a verdant spice paste smoothed with ramps. Then it came cooked in plump links of North African merguez shiny with rhubarb glaze and paired with smashed English peas. The meal reaffirmed Zahav as one of my favorite restaurants in America. Only a slightly dry take on carrot and apricot basbousa, a semolina cake, missed the mark. Even as a sweets lover, I’ll say that so many savories entice that this is a restaurant where it feels fine to skip dessert.
The meal reaffirmed Zahav as one of my favorite restaurants in America.
In February Zahav underwent renovations, mostly in the kitchen but with some subtle changes to the dining room — an extended bar, some shelves for tchotchkes in the corner. Across the restaurant from our table by the picture windows, Mike Solomonov stood at the same post where I first saw him last July, shoveling dough for laffa bread in and out of the oven and keeping an eye on the plates that crossed the kitchen pass. It was a reassuring sight. One of course worries that when restaurant talents transition to ambitious entrepreneurs and divide themselves between evermore businesses, they dilute the qualities that made their food and their hospitality singular. But right now, at just this size, the CookNSolo group finds itself in an era more golden than schmaltz.
Abe Fisher: 1623 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, (215) 867-0088, abefisherphilly.com
Dizengoff: 1625 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, (215) 867-8181, dizengoffphilly.com
Federal Donuts: 1632 Sansom Street (and other locations), Philadelphia, federaldonuts.com
Zahav: 237 Saint James Place, Philadelphia, (215) 625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com
Main photo: Salatim at Zahav
For more on Solomonov, listen to him on our podcast, the Eater Upsell.