I must preface this review of the spot Philadelphia Magazine named best restaurant in the city with an apology about the photography with which I’m about to assault you. It’s atrocious, and I realize that. Here’s why: Zahav is wonderful, but dark, and I ate there smack in the middle of an uproarious girls’ weekend that had included many adult beverages, one breathless race through Rittenhouse Square following a too-long perusal of Lululemon, and a possibly illegal Society Hill parking job on a residential side street. Keep that in mind, heed the words, and ignore the blur. Thank you.
Zahav, the brainchild of the two dudes who brought us Percy Street Barbecue and a new fried chicken and donuts joint much lauded by “Zeke the Food God” at Di Bruno Bros., Federal Donuts, is the most upscale of the trio. The word Zahav means “gold,” in Hebrew, reflecting the Israeli origin of the cuisine and chef. It’s all exotic spice souk meets monastery chic inside, accompanied by a fun, poppy, 80s soundtrack. Trippy indeed, but somehow absolutely, positively fitting for the gorgeous array of food cranked out here.
While we were seated for 20 minutes or so before our drink order was taken, this minor inconvenience was forgotten when our waiter made special accommodation to serve the roasted lamb dish a la carte for Big Hungry Jill and me, even though they don’t usually do that. I started my meal with a drink called Forbidden Fruit, a concoction of tequila, saffron and pomegranate. I’m pretty sure they don’t drink much tequila in Israel, but if they catch wind of this drink, they might start.
As a table, we ordered the Tayim, which is Zahav’s version of the Lockhart at Percy Street: a selection of appetizers, side dishes and main courses to be shared by the table. If you’re a table of big eaters, get the Mesibah, which features the same starters and sides, but the whole roasted lamb shoulder as the entrée. First up in the progression, a shallow but wide dish of hummus was delivered to the table with laffa bread, which is a thinner, more delicate version of pita. Zahav’s puffy laffa is made in house, and is crisp in some places and soft and chewy in others, like really fine pizza crust. Big Hungry Shannon muttered what we were all thinking about the hummus, “I could eat only this for the rest of my life and be happy.” It was….exemplary. Miles away from the supermarket variety – silky, earthy, salty and sweet, garnished with a fair bit of, sincerely, the most delicious olive oil I have ever tasted. We were practically licking the bottom of the serving dish, and thought about ordering seconds or thirds of both it and the bread.
Next up: the salatim, otherwise known as a dizzying selection of salads and vegetable dishes. The twice-baked eggplant was my favorite, almost syrupy sweet, caramelized and highly spiced. In the magical zoo of mythical creatures, this is what the unicorns eat. Holy God, it was delicious.
Big Hungry Jill particularly liked the carrots with cumin and coriander, and promises she has a recipe for a similar dish that she’ll share with me. Again, these were spiced without being spicy; Tender without being mushy. I would put it on equal footing with the beet dish, comprised of shredded, roasted beets, which were creamy and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg into a comforting, holiday-like confection. The pickled vegetables were a clever foil for all the richly spiced veg dishes. I’ve never thought of a pickle as a palate cleanser before, but these made sense in that role.
Next up was our selection of mezze. We each chose two, and my faves from the list were the chicken liver mousse (duh) and baked kibbe. The kibbe, or lamb meatballs, were rich and creamy, but just a touch dry for me.
The chicken liver mousse, served in little slices on toasted, sweet, slightly dry challah bread, was a creamy, mineraly delight. The crispy chicken skin blessing the top might not be the feed of any magical creatures, but I would be glad to eat it any time. Fried chicken skin has been a trademark of successful Top Chef cheftestants for years, but I’m just now starting to see it on menus in the real world, and I shall rejoice and partake of each instance.
The fried cauliflower was good, but its accompaniment of chive, dill, mint and garlic sauce was everything. Simple, and I do mean simple, but in the best possible way; awesome. Guess what else? We tried sweetbreads. Sweetbreads! Yes, the pancreas of the calf or lamb, fried up schnitzel-style with cauliflower and tahina. The meat was very creamy and mild, and the cheesy, also mild pesto underneath and pickled cauliflower alongside were terrific foils.
The crispy haloumi is a must-order item. Haloumi is the Mediterranean cheese that you can grill up and it stays firm with just a delicious, salty edge of goo. Laura was dying to try it, so the rest of us just had small samples, but the mix of crispy cheese, peas, and pine nuts was divine. Definitely what the snuffalupagus eats in the zoo of magical pets.
There were also some tasty main courses directly prior to that piece de resistance, the roasted lamb, hitting our table. The ground duck kebabs were very tender and moist. The rice with which they were served was killer, basmati scented with cinnamon, cumin, and nutmeg. I can never get my basmati to turn out right – it’s always a sticky mess – so I appreciate when it’s done right. Plus, the spiced rice was a really yummy, comforting, warming compliment to the rich duck meat.
Everything we had eaten so far was by far heady enough – we were all in a boozy haze of satiety and pleasure. There’s something about highly spiced, but not spicy, food that is sumptuous and enveloping in a way, say, raw oysters or pork belly is not. I love all types of food, but this cuisine, which is relatively new to me, is racing up the list as a favorite. And next came the lamb, the gorgeous, rich, masterpiece of the meal. I’m so sad my disastrous photo doesn’t do it justice at all.
This lavish dish was salty, sweet, melty, crispy, meaty and rich. The meat was fall-apart tender while still being moist, with crispy, charred edges adorned in sticky-sweet, slightly bitter pomegranate glaze, with veins of heavenly fat delivered to our table by angels. It was a bacchanalia of meat, served with crispy fried chickpeas on a bed of crispy, fried rice. Equally good were the leftovers a day later, when I scooped the hunks of luscious meat onto store-bought pita bread. It is an imperative that you try this fantastic dish at Zahav when you go.
We also partook in some desserts, none of which really rang my bell after that spectacular lamb, but I will say the coconut cake and ricotta cheese dessert we sampled was enormously satisfying, and the dessert cocktail I ordered, with grand marnier, honey and cream, was slap-your-mama good.
When the manager of Zahav came out to say hi, we could not have been more effusive in our praise of this beautiful meal. Though the restaurant and presentation of the dishes are very high end, the food is ultimately so homey and comforting, it feels very relaxed. In fact, we made friends with the couple at the table next to us, ultimately giving the husband some of our lamb, since his wife was a vegetarian. We gave Zahav a 10 on the BHS scale, with two exclamation points next to it. We tried some far out stuff – sweetbreads, duck hearts, lamb – and liked all of it. If Israeli cuisine sounds far out to you, which it certainly would have to me a year ago, I promise that there are dishes here that will seem familiar and comfortable. Above all, the modern meets ancient atmosphere and knowledgeable staff will bring you a positive dining experience and a night out you won’t soon forget – even if the cocktails do flow a little too liberally. You’ll love it, just as the unicorns do. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!