We booked B's birthday weekend away in Philly without checking the reservations at Zahav. Thankfully after a few panicked phone calls between the Zahav reservationist, me, and B, on a weekday afternoon, we managed to grab the last table for 2 at 9.30pm. The next two weeks were spent dreaming (anticipatory dreaming) of the hummus we would eat by the bowlful on our late Saturday night in Philadelphia.
After a glass of bubbles at the wonderfully old-school The Olde Bar, we strolled around the corner, and joined the line of people hovering in the entrance to Zahav. Cocktails and beer were ordered and we were soon shown to our table.
Zahav, in case you don't know, is the key to Philadelphia's food scene. Run by Michael Solomonov (yes, he of the same day's doughnuts, and also of Dizengoff, in both New York and Philadelphia), this elegant, always packed-out restaurant is well-known for a reason: with its semi-open kitchen, and a searing wood-fired oven, where Middle Eastern chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and a long bar is always well-populated, Zahav is the real restaurant deal. The reason why it's hard to get a reservation is because the hummus is often referred to as life-changing. Even David Lebovitz, who wasn't sure it was possible, says so. (Make sure you read his review here!)
So obviously we started with hummus. A huge bowl of the tehina hummus, served with laffa bread, freshy baked in the wood-burning oven. Once B had got over the excitement of having a flatbread bigger than his face, we tore off strips of the warm, fluffy laffa, and dipped it through the creamy, rich, smooth, sleek hummus. It's true, this hummus is life changing. No other hummus will ever be the same again. I think I may have to buy Solomonov's cookbook to get the recipe, but I'm not sure anything I make in my kitchen will ever be as mind-blowing as this was.
After hummus came a few mezze: fried cauliflower with labneh, chives, dill, mint, and garlic; Valley Shepherd haloumi, kataifi, sour cherries, pistachio, and celery; fried kibbe made with bulgar wheat, lamb, beef, spring onion, and tahina. They were all beautiful, balanced, and exploding with flavor from fresh vegetables, dark meats, herbs, spices, and fruits. The haloumi looked so fancy, and was so much tastier than a dish that looks that pretty tends to be: The haloumi molten inside, not chewy or squeaky, and melding wonderfully with the cherries and crunchy pastry. The fried kibbe made any previous kibbe I've ever eaten seem like the most underwhelming disappointment. You just need to look at the cauliflower to know how fabulous that was.
Following that were the dishes simply referred to on the menu as 'Al Ha'esh: Grilled over coals', and served with buttery rice pilaf. Due to their deeply charred smokiness, these dishes didn't exactly photograph well, but they tasted of campfire, of barbecue, of the meat and vegetables' own subtle flavors made so much more extreme having been cooked slowly and gently just a couple of meters behind us on those flickering flames. We had the sirloin shishlik, and the spiced eggplant with lentils, garlic tehina, harif, and crispy wheat. I am planning another trip to Philly just to eat more hummus and spiced eggplant in the very near future.
With our bill came tiny hazelnut biscuits with a dot of fruit jam on top. I sipped up the last of my Lemonnara cocktail (Jim Beam, muddled mint, fresh lemon, and verbena), and we set out into the warm Philly night, to stroll back to our enormous apartment, and sleep off one of the most perfect meals we've ever had.
Zahav, 237 St James Pl, Philadelphia, PA 19106