In a nutshell: Explore classic Israeli cuisine with a novel delicious twist–the laffa and hummus and fried haloumi are musts–at this Old City spot.
After opening its doors in May 2008, Zahav has introduced countless diners to authentic and innovative Israeli flavors. The restaurant’s name means “gold” in Hebrew, referencing the cultural crossroads of Jerusalem. Indeed, stepping inside the restaurant is like entering a secret courtyard in the holy city.
The interior design is elegant yet casual with its high ceilings, golden limestone floors and walls, and hand-carved tables. It’s easy to spot chef Michael Solomonov whipping up a new batch of laffa at any given time during the dinner hour.
The menu is set up tapas-style, so sharing is a must. It’s a great way to explore the plethora of dishes available; I found 2-3 dishes per person to be plenty.
Salatim and Hummus (In the beginning…)
No meal can begin without the Israeli version of bread and butter: laffa and hummus. The house-baked, still-warm-to-the-touch laffa is a nice departure from the usual American starter. Tender and pillowy, the bread derivative is excellent served alongside a large dish of well-oiled, well-seasoned hummus.
There are 4 different kinds of hummus available and all offer a unique spin on the basic dip. The classic hummus-tehina is composed of sesame paste, garlic, lemon, olive oil, cumin, and parsley. Turkish hummus is a welcome diversion in that it is served warm, made with butter and grilled garlic. It is easy to fill up on the laffa and hummus alone, so make sure to save room for the rest of the dishes to come. (By the way, the difference in prices depends on the size of your hummus dish.)
Tip: Go between the hours of 5 and 7 pm on a weekday to enjoy half-price hummus as a happy hour special!
Salatim, the daily selection of salads, is also a great starter to share before diving into the main plates. On the occasions I’ve gone, I’ve been able to sample many different varieties over the many dining experiences I’ve enjoyed here: marinated carrots, beet salad, cucumbers, pickled carrot and cauliflower floret medley… I was most impressed with the purplish-red beet salad, which was surprisingly creamy and incredibly addictive. There’s also a $24 option on the menu (I’m guessing a greater selection of salads?).
I’m not sure if they still bring a three-partitions dish of condiments to the table, but they are quite the treat if you have the opportunity to try them. We sampled za’atar (a traditional Israeli herb and spice mixture with sumac and sesame), harissa (a piquant, earthy chili sauce with garlic and red wine vinegar), and schug (a tongue-tingling cilantro-serrano chile paste with cilantro, parsley, olive oil, and sea salt). The waiter described it to us as the ethnic varieties of salt, pepper, and hot sauce, respectively. We had fun sampling the different condiments (the schug definitely has a kick to it) and seasoning our pieces of laffa.
Mezze (Small Plates)
The House Smoked Sable (Challah, fried egg, poppy) is surprisingly simple yet paramount in flavor. The light, flaky fish was well seasoned, although I wish there was more on the plate. The rich golden egg yolk that spilled out when we cut into the toast was a pleasant surprise; how they achieved that, I have no idea! But of all the components present on the plate, I thought the toast was the star of the dish: I couldn’t get enough of that crisp buttery bread. For lack of a better comparison, I likened it to a glorified, haute cuisine Filet-o-Fish (I mean that in the best way possible!).
Fried Sweetbreads (Chickpeas, green chiles, garlic) are not flour-based breads as you might think, but rather the thymus or pancreas of a calf (can be that of a pig or lamb as well). As far as its etymology, “sweet” is likely used because the thymus is sweet and rich tasting (as opposed to savory tasting muscle flesh), while “bread” comes from either the Old English brede (“roasted meat”) or brǣd (“flesh” or “meat”). It’s thrilling to get a dish not usually offered in restaurants. For me, the dish was so airy, it was practically non-existent: all I tasted was the seasoning. I wished there was more substance, but I suppose the sweetbread’s lightness is what makes it such a delicacy. The chickpeas were just as light and tender beneath their crisp crust. Still good to try if you’ve never had sweetbreads before.
The Jerusalem Kugel (Brisket, fideos, cherries) is a nest of coiled vermicelli noodles, tender beef, and fruity cherries baked in a dish before serving. The flavors of the plate reminded me of delicious upscale Chinese food. I didn’t mind the compactness of the mound; I liked the crispy crust it developed and the way it contrasted the soft interior.
One of my favorite appetizers during all the times I’ve gone is the Crispy Haloumi (Dates, walnuts, apple). The firm, salty cheese holds up nicely to the kitchen’s preparation. Served alongside julienned apples on top with their sweet-tart crunch and a smooth puree of dates beneath, the haloumi is an excellent choice for the table.
When cooked properly, brussel sprouts are moist, tender spheres without a trace of bitterness. The expertly-prepared Marinated Brussel Sprouts (Whipped feta, babaganoush, sumac) were just that. The fluffy dollops of feta were perfect for dipping the sprouts into as well.
What an unexpected surprise the Beef Cheek Pastilla (Braised greens, coffee) was! The incredibly tender beef took center stage, beaming with meaty savoriness. The meat pie reminded me of a chimichanga with its crispy shell, but this shell was more airy and lighter than any deep-fried burrito I’ve bit into. The refreshing relish on top was the perfect counterpoint to the neat little pocket.
The Moroccan Chicken (Chermoula, freekeh, pickled cabbage) was a bit too bland for my taste, resembling boiled chicken over rice (freekeh is a cereal food made from green wheat, similar to barley). I think other dishes on the menu have more sparkle.
A healthy smear of labaneh with chive, dill, mint, and garlic is served alongside the Fried Cauliflower. Despite not being as crisp as I would’ve liked, the cauliflower had an incredibly addictive flavor that made me want to pop them in my mouth every other second.
Al Ha’esh (Grilled Over Coals)
The bowl of Chicken Shishlik (Figs, almonds, carrots, pumpkin-saffron rice pilaf) had me and my dining companions instantly clamoring for more after we took our first bites. So tender, so juicy… this was some utterly amazing, absolutely mouthwatering thigh dark meat. Accentuated by sweet figs and carrots, earthy pumpkin, fragrant pilaf, and nutty roasted almonds, the bowl was perfectly composed.
You could best liken Kofte (Ground beef and lamb, cumin, peppers, carrots) to an Israeli variation of the Italian meatball. I enjoyed the aromatic, flavorful combination of beef and lamb, which was perked up with a welcome touch of spiciness. The Kofte lied on a warm bed of savory red pepper salad; I liked the subtle sweetness that the sautéed peppers contributed.
The Duck Kebab (Ground duck, foie gras and pistachios, saffron) showcased Zahav’s ability to transform plain ground duck into something special. Oh-so-moist and exquisitely tender, this is certainly no ordinary meatball.
The Salmon Shishlik (Moroccan couscous, spicy tomato stew) was fairly underwhelming, paling in comparison to the chicken version I had during a different dining experience. The tomato stew didn’t blend with the rest of the dish as well as I would have liked, rather disparate from the fish and couscous. The salmon itself was also a touch overcooked.
The Milk Chocolate Baklava (Peanuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin ice cream) sounded like a classic we knew we had to try. I had imagined a plate filled with the traditional lofty triangles of flaky phyllo layered with a chopped nuts filling, but was rather surprised to see what came to the table. The heavy-handed dosage of honey drenched the little logs; less would have allowed the baklava’s natural flavors to come through more effectively. The ice cream also needed a stronger pumpkin flavor.
The Kataifi (Valrhona chocolate, labaneh ice cream, mango) was our meal’s “dessert kugel” (at least in my mind). The yogurt had a strong, overbearing tang, but the mango helped cut through the yogurt and the too-dense dark chocolate mousse (it’s mousse: it should be light, not heavy! The darkness of the chocolate weighed it down).
The Konafi (Ricotta, apples, labaneh ice cream) was rather similar to the Kataifi (the name itself essentially refers to the same type of dessert). Between the two, I preferred this version (Konafi), as the flavors of the ingredients harmonized well together; the ice cream’s inherent yogurt-based sourness was sweetened by the chunks of apple.
The Pumpkin Cake (vanilla custard, pepitas) sadly wasn’t warm, but the crumb was nice and the seasonal flavor prevalent. The white flan-like pudding with a dollop of sour cherry jam squarely in the center was a delicious accompaniment. Creamy and smooth, the mild but flavorful custard was perked up considerably by the pert tart jam.
The dessert that has truly knocked my socks off is the Caramel Semifreddo (Pistachio cookie, dulce de leche, cherries). I thought the cookie topping and incredibly buttery crust were stellar, the deeply tangy fruit sauce spectacular, and the semifreddo itself smooth, creamy, and refreshing.
You may even be lucky to have complimentary bite-sized rugelach served to you at the end.
To satisfy your hummus and salatim cravings any time of day, Green Aisle Grocery stocks both on a regular basis. Regardless, make sure that Zahav is on your list in some fashion whenever you’re in Philly. I think this comic by Sissy Biscuit sums it up pretty well:
237 Saint James Place