— Ronit Treatman
How can I pay a five star price to eat some hummus?” I asked myself when friends invited me to join them at Zahav, a posh new Israeli restaurant in Society Hill. After all, I can eat Israeli food for free every time I have dinner at my parents’ home! One of our companions had never tried Israeli food, however, so I decided to join them.
Entering the large, airy restaurant was like stepping into the Levant.
There were posters of Israeli markets on the wall and intricately designed metal Moroccan lamps. The expertly trained bilingual (Hebrew and English) wait staff greeted us warmly. An attractive crowd of people was enjoying drinks and conversation while sitting at the well stocked bar, which contained some very interesting wines from Israel, Lebanon and Morocco.
Our table was right in front of the tabun, or wood-fired brick oven. Chef Solomonov was baking Lafah, an Iraqi flatbread. On the menu are two choices of prix fixe dinners. The first one is called Ta’yim (delicious in Hebrew) and the second is Mesibah (which means party). For the uninitiated, this is the best way to sample an Israeli menu. We ordered the Mesibah. Our meal began with an assortment of eight different Israeli salads. Everything was fresh and meticulously prepared. These were crunchy, colorful vegetable combinations, each seasoned differently. Especially good were the Moroccan carrot salad and the Israeli vegetable salad. Perfectly seasoned, creamy hummus and finger-singeing lafah, straight out of the tabun, arrived at our table as well. A plate of Israeli pickles and olives was also brought out.
Mezze, or appetizers, were served next. This was an opportunity to explore the diversity of cultures that make up modern Israel. We began in Cyprus, with grilled Haloumi cheese. This sheep’s milk cheese was grilled over hardwood charcoal on a grill next to the tabun. Haloumi does not melt when grilled; it arrived in crispy cubes served with dates and pine nuts. Next, we went to Turkey, and tried the feta, ricotta, and olive borekas, or turnovers. From the Mediterranean, we sampled fried cauliflower with a labaneh (sheep’s milk yogurt) and chive dip. Egypt brought us kibbeh, a deep fried bulgur wheat and lamb croquette, and stuffed grape leaves.
Chef Solomonov pays homage to his Bukharian heritage when cooking the whole roasted lamb shoulder, our main course. Bukhara is a city on the Silk Road, in modern day Uzbekistan. It is famous for its pomegranates and black walnuts, which traditionally were used for both dyeing silk and cooking. Zahav’s lamb is cooked in a pomegranate sauce with chickpeas. It melted in our mouths, and the flavor was deliciously unique. I highly recommend reserving this dish in advance, as it sells out early.
For a glorious ending, Zahav brought out a sampling of all its desserts. From Italy, we tried a chocolate-almond semifreddo (half cold) ice cream cake. Cashew baklava brought us the flavors of the Ottoman Empire as this phyllo dough, nut, and honey concoction was perfected in the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans for four hundred years. Basboosa, a semolina cake soaked in orange water and honey syrup, represented the Eastern Mediterranean; it was served with peanuts and labaneh. A pistachio cake was served with one of the most exotic ingredients in the restaurant, frozen salep, made from the ground tubers of an orchid. A new twist on a Persian favorite is the halvah mousse, made with sesame seeds and honey. In order to be able to heave ourselves off our chairs, we needed to drink some of Zahav’s deliciously sweet fresh mint tea.
Zahav provides a fair value for the excellence of the food, the ambience, and the quality of the service. Israelis – whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or a combination – will find that the food at Zahav is definitely not your mother’s cooking! For those who have never sampled Israeli food before, this is a polite, civilized sort of introduction, where you delicately put your hummus on some lafah with a knife. It is not a wiping the hummus off the plate with your pita kind of place! I need to go back soon!