When you’re Jewish it’s rare to meet another Jewish person with whom you don’t know someone in common. We’re all connected. Which is why it’s hard to resist playing “Jewish geography” with each other. This becomes evident on a day trip to Philadelphia with a group of friends.
We are in Philly to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. One of our favorite sections is on Jewish camping, where you can look through photos from Jewish camps around the country. We are delighted to find familiar faces in the photos from a local camp. Overall we enjoy the museum, but agree that it has a bit more “breadth than depth.” But if you are in Philadelphia, it’s certainly worth spending a few hours exploring. And I highly recommend the gift shop, where I purchased a beautiful pair of earrings from Israeli designer Dori Csengeri.
I am really in Philadelphia so that I can dine at Zahav, which is a modern Israeli restaurant. When people ask me for recommendations in Philadelphia, I always say Zahav, despite the fact I’ve never been there. But I’m confident in the press I’ve read, and the personal accounts from the people I’ve sent. Plus, Chef Michael Solomonov won the James Beard Award for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef, 2011. My own hype is starting to get to me. I must try it for myself.
We enter Zahav and we are transported to Israel. A colorful mural of the crowded Mahane Yehuda market makes each of us smile at the memories. I’ve actually been to Israel with every person in our group at one time or another, so it’s even more reminiscent.
We eliminate the long process of deciding what to order by having the Tay’im tasting menu, which includes salatim (salads) and hummus, two mezze, one skewer, and dessert.
First up is the laffa (bread) and hummus, delivered on a cutting board topped with a clipping from an Israeli newspaper. It adds a touch of authenticity. The warm laffa is light and airy, with accompanying hummus that is smooth and slightly tart. There are optional seasonings for added interest including zatar (which is not my favorite spice), and zhoug which is made of hot green peppers, garlic, oil, spices and tons of coriander. I don’t care what my husband says (he doesn’t think it’s that spicy), the rest of us are on fire. Our senses have been properly awakened.
The salatim are delivered on a towering tray by a server with an Israeli accent. One of my friends begins a dialogue with him:
“Where are you from?” she says.
“Israel,” he answers.
“Yes, but where?”
“OK, where in the north?” she asks.
“Near the Galillee.” Is this guy not getting that we are somewhat familiar with his land?
“Where?” This game is getting exhausting.
“Tel Katzir” he finally says, naming a small kibbutz near the Sea of Galillee.
“Ah,” she smiles. “I worked at that kibbutz in 1979.
Despite the fact that my friend was there before he was even born, with just a few names mentioned they know people in common. When Jewish geography works, it really works!
The Israeli server leaves us to our salatim, which have us oohing and ahhing. We have two towers of salad between us, so we don’t have to fight over our food. The small dishes include cucumber salad, Moroccan carrots, eggplant, taboulleh, fennel salad, and bamya (okra salad). While the names of the salads sound familiar to us, the tastes are distinct. The concentrated flavors of sumac, mint, cumin, fenugreek, cilantro, coriander, fennel, and zhoug transform representative Middle Eastern fare into something wondrous. We are elated by the food, but also because this restaurant feels so comfortable – and comforting.
We have only a few moments before our mezze arrive. We prepare for the onslaught of flavors. We’ve seated ourselves with the three meat eaters at one end of the table and the four pescaterians at the other, so that we can more easily share our dishes. There’s no need on the first dish. We have three orders of fried cauliflower with labaneh (yogurt cheese), chive, dill, mint and garlic. There is admiration all around for the crisped cauliflower, which is wonderfully balanced by the cool savory yogurt.
I am a bit tentative in my approach to a dish called kibbe naya, which is raw lamb with bulgur and artichokes. I am a lamb lover, but am hesitant about eating it raw. Silly me. There’s enough flavor here to make me forget my reticence and reach for more.
On the herbivore side of the table, they are enjoying crispy haloumi with English peas, pine nuts, and ramps. I take a bite, just to make sure they’re not missing out on the greatness we’re experiencing. They are not. It’s slightly salty, and the texture of the haloumi is meaty.
I am excited about the Jerusalem kugel,which is a savory noodle kugel with brisket and sour cherries. I would have liked it a touch sweeter and with a few more morsels of brisket. It’s not a fail by any means, but it is my least favorite of the mezze, because it doesn’t quite live up to the vision I’ve conjured up in my mind.
A few people in our group order golden beet salad with ramps, Bulgarian feta, and blood orange. I’ve had too many beets during Passover, so I pass this dish over. I feel some regret now, as this looks stunning and reports are that the taste lives up to the appearance.
The next course is “al ha’esh” (grilled over coals). The meat eaters have duck kebab with pistachios and saffron, kofte with ground beef and lamb, and chicken shishlik with figs, almonds, and carrot pilaf . Each dish is distinct in its flavor profiles, while at the same time sharing a Middle Eastern flair. It is impossible to select a favorite. They are equal in their deliciousness. It must be noted that the food at Zahav is best for lovers of strong flavors. There is nothing timid about these ingredients, which is exactly why I’m such a fan.
The fish eaters are enjoying crispy branzino with black-eyed peas, apple, and celery root, along with spiced eggplant with couscous, mushrooms, and tehina. At Zahav there is no shame or compromise in not eating meat.
Since everyone in our group of seven is entitled to a dessert, we have the luxury of being served all five of the menu options which include: almond semifreddo; halva with pomegranate, chocolate, and pistachios; kataifi (pastry) with chocolate, labaneh ice cream and mango; apricot rugelach with almonds and Turkish coffee ice cream; and poppyseed cake with white chocolate, banana, and huckleberries. I must admit that initially none of these choices particularly appeal to me. There are too many nuts for my taste. But I am surprised at how easily I adjust my attitude. I find myself spooning into each of the desserts with increasing enthusiasm. (Somehow the only dessert that doesn’t escape the camera is the poppyseed cake.)
Zahav is a wonderful restaurant. The food is bright and beautiful. The service is competent and at the same time not overbearing. Happily, even though the restaurant is full, the noise level remains tolerable and allows for conversation. But for those of us who have experienced Israel, it is so much more than a quality dining experience. It stirs the senses and evokes fond memories of food and culture. As far as geography goes, our journey has taken us to Pennsylvania. But the truth is that the 2 1/2 hour drive brings us closer to Israel than we ever imagined possible.
Zahav, 237 St. James Place, Philadelphia, PA
Review from Kosher Camembert