At the risk of sounding jaded, I’ve lost track of the number of times I have scored a reservation at some “must visit” restaurant and left underwhelmed. Sure, there also have been plenty of paradigm-shifting meals, dinners that were worth all the effort it took to book a table, but then there are others that failed to live up to the hype or the too-lofty expectations I’d set.
Somehow I knew going into my meal at the chef’s counter at the much-heralded Zahav that I wouldn’t leave disappointed. Michael Solomonov, after all, is a chef at the very top of his game, and these days he often seems to peddle as much in the alchemical as he does in the culinary, transforming what reads as really good food on the menu into something wholly transcendent on the plate.
And this is exactly what he and his team of mad geniuses did recently at their counter.
Over the course of a recent epic meal here, my friends—the ones who had been lucky and tenacious enough to get the res, the same ones I owe my eternal thanks—and I enjoyed a range of flavors that was, as I’d hoped, a game-changing experience.
Everything, it seemed, was just right. Asparagus (a seasonal treat, to be sure, but too rarely transcendent) sang an aria amplified by black harissa and feta. A soft-boiled egg floated far above its humble origins when plated with house-cured beef basturma, its perfume of spice somehow both exotic and inevitable. English peas walked the tightrope between low key and luxe in their communion with bulgur wheat and a perfectly executed barberry sauce.
All of these were framed impeccably by the supplemental beverage pairings. Notice I specify “beverage” as opposed to “wine.” The range of flavors and textures here is too broad to be limited to pairing only with wine, and the team here is confident enough in their work to play well outside the box.
The results were staggering. That asparagus salad, for example, was brilliantly accompanied by the phenomenal Arnsdorfer Geschmack Gruner Veltliner Riesling, a white blend whose mouth-filling name belies the wine’s own inherent crispness. The first two dishes—grilled chickpeas and an impossibly elegant hummus tahini with pine nuts and roasted oyster mushrooms—were joined at the counter by a Sombra mezcal gimlet, which proved to be an ingenious move; the smokiness of the mezcal mirrored the same flavors in the food, and the lime juice in the cocktail sliced right through the dishes’ richness.
What’s also remarkable about the counter experience is how inherently casual it is. You’re sitting at the counter looking right through the glass into the kitchen, with your back toward the dining room. Not only does it feel both low key and deeply personal, but you can also feel the eyes from the other guests in the dining room looking over at you, wondering what sort of wonders you are enjoying.
Here’s what kind: a yogurt soup with Israeli honey and red onion, all fresh and bright, cocooning a counterweight of lamb rillettes; oysters with onions all exotic with sumac, and seared black cod vivid with red chermoula; and a lamb shoulder approximately the size of my apartment, the black garlic harissa, artichoke and fava salads as well calibrated as the machinery at CERN.
Even desserts lived up to the lofty expectations. A deeply acidic lemon sorbet kissed with the anise zip of Massaya arak cleansed the palate and, in a sense, reset it. This made the necessary space for the white chocolate malabi, all perfumed and perfect, with a house-made Galia melon sorbet. It was paired with one final cocktail, the Voodoo Dreams. With its bitter-herbal base of Fernet-Branca and its higher tones of lime, ginger root and allspice, each sip seemed to reiterate the themes that had woven their way throughout the rest of the meal: confidence in the exotic; a vision unencumbered by anything but the goal of surprising, charming and delighting; and an epic one-meal expression of a restaurant at the top of its game.
There are only four seats available each Friday and Saturday dinner service—and only one single seating—so competition is fierce for them. My recommendation: Do whatever you have to for your chance. It shifts the paradigm in ways both unexpected and exhilarating. This is a game changer.
237 St. James Place (just off Walnut Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets)
215-625-8800 | zahavrestaurant.com
Photography by Michael Regan