The Yelp website lists Zahav as a Philadelphia restaurant offering “modern Israeli food.” Chef-owner Michael Solomonov doesn’t quite agree with that definition. He says the food at Zahav is a twist on the Israeli cuisine he knew as a child and on his visits to Israel over the years: hummus, Israeli salad, grilled meats. “Is this modern?” he asks with a smile.
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One way or another, despite the hummus and skewered meat, Zahav is as far removed from a fast-food grill joint as can be – in looks, price and flavors. There are many restaurants across the United States that serve “Israeli” food. But Zahav was the first to try and openly offer upscale Israeli cuisine, without hiding behind labels of “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” food. It was also the first “Israeli” restaurant to win the James Beard Award, the most prestigious in the U.S. restaurant business.
The first opportunity I had, I traveled to Philadelphia and dined at Zahav. It was a real experience. Israeli journalist Ron Mayberg, who ate there in the past, wrote that Zahav serves the best Israeli food in America, maybe in the entire world.
I agree that this is an excellent restaurant, but I also know people who say the praise lavished on it, good as it may be, is over-the-top. Others say it is overpriced in relation to the food on offer there.
To his credit, one should say that, in contrast to many other restaurants with an Israeli flavor, Solomonov always aimed for a clientele of Americans who love Middle Eastern restaurants, not just Israelis who miss home. He explains that the flavors may be familiar, but the techniques of preparation and presentation are from upscale cuisine.
“We take what Ashkenazi and Sephardi-style Israeli restaurants offer,” says Solomonov, describing his kitchen as kosher-esque. “We don’t serve pork or shrimps, we don’t mix meat and dairy, but it’s not a kosher kitchen,” he explains.
I first heard of Solomonov at a Beyond Conference organized by the Israeli consulate in New York. Israelis and Jews associated with Israel came and spoke for 15 minutes, each trying to impart inspiration through their life stories.
Solomonov gave a short lecture, and there was something captivating and touching about his story, which was told in a dry tone. Another side to the successful chef was also revealed. It turns out the High Holy Days are his personal Days of Awe. While others celebrate, this is the most difficult period of the year for Solomonov: Sadness falls upon him, and he finds it difficult to break free.
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 2003, his brother David was killed on the Lebanese border. He was on an Israel Defense Forces patrol, substituting for a friend who wanted to go home to fast with his family. A Hezbollah sniper shot and killed him on the spot, three days before his release from the army.
Michael Solomonov was driven to drink and drugs, but with the help of his wife and his business partner, he is slowly climbing out of the abyss. It has been seven years since he last touched alcohol or drugs, but says that “every day and every minute are a struggle. You’re never completely free of your addiction.”
Ray of light
Solomonov was born in Israel, but moved to Pittsburgh with his family at age 2. At 15 he returned to Israel and went to a boarding school with American kids. But after a year, he returned to Pennsylvania. He went to college in Vermont, but left halfway through and returned once more to Israel, where he worked in a bakery. He later decided to go back to the United States, where he enrolled in a school for chefs, working at an Italian restaurant in Philadephia. He then became a sous chef at the city’s renowned Vetri restaurant.
When his brother died, he left the Italian restaurant and started cooking dishes he knew from Israel at a friend’s restaurant. “People liked it, so we asked ourselves, ‘Why not start cooking Israeli food, not Jewish and not Mediterranean?” he recalls.
He opened Zahav in May 2008, just as the great financial crisis hit. A ray of light appeared six months later when Esquire magazine named it one of the 20 best restaurants in the United States. Straight after, Food & Wine magazine joined the fan club, selecting Zahav’s cauliflower dish as its dish of the year.
Today, Solomonov and his business partner Steve Cook run Cook N Solo, which incorporates their different restaurants. Zahav is the firm’s flagship restaurant, but they also own four other Philadelphia eateries: a hummus joint called Dizengoff; a restaurant offering Ashkenazi food called Abe Fisher; a Texan-style barbecue restaurant called Percy Street Barbecue; and Federal Donuts, which serves donuts and fried chicken — a combo only possible in America.
Another way Solomonov tries to come to terms with his brother’s death is the book he just wrote, “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” in which he tells his personal and culinary life story, accompanied by a long list of recipes.
In addition to all these projects, next spring the PBS network will screen a documentary by director Roger M. Sherman called “The Search for Israeli Cuisine,” in which Solomonov will take viewers on a journey through the world of Israeli food.
The film was shot in Israel over several weeks, bringing together the region’s best chefs and food personalities, who were filmed chatting and feeding the chef and director. The two tracked down about 200 food-related people in Israel for their film.
With the TV film, new book and expanding restaurant empire, Solomonov labels himself Israel’s food ambassador to the United States. “I never thought my connection with Israel would be as strong as it is now,” he admits. “I cook Israeli food because I love it. This helps me maintain ties with the country of my birth — I never thought I’d feel such a strong attachment to it.”