Zahav sets the standard for casual-yet-still-special dining

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Chef Michael Solomonov also wrote "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking."

Part of me is jealous of the couple beside us.

The look of stunned pleasure on their faces as they discover for the first time some of the now-classic modern Israeli dishes at Zahav is priceless. I remember that feeling well.

With eyes wide in wonder as exotic new aromas waft like a warm Jerusalem breeze across their Society Hill table, they dig hungrily into the myriad little dishes of salatim — roasted beets enriched with tahini; charred eggplants perfumed with paprika smoke; Levantine carrots bright with orange, pine nuts and chilies. They wrap warm laffa bread fresh from the taboon oven around their fingers and dip into the cuminy silk of hummus topped with fresh green chickpeas and the funky kick of house-fermented harissa heat.

They savor the fried cauliflower with dilled labneh sauce, the pistachio-dusted haloumi with pickled strawberries, an adventure skewer of grilled duck hearts, and then the epic shoulder of lamb with chickpeas glossed in its deeply smoky and tart pomegranate braise.

Such powerfully unique flavors, paired with outgoing service, Israeli wines, and a lively spirit that fills this glowing glass box of a room with a flickering energy that sets the standard for casual-yet-still-special dining, are what elevated Zahav to four bells in 2012.

But as I took a bracing sip of a za’atar-infused G&T that recent night, I realized I wasn’t jealous at all so much as heartened. Because, despite its rise to national renown, and the expansion of Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov’s other concepts (Dizengoff and Federal Donuts), Zahav remains Solomonov’s primary kitchen home and continues to evolve.

The ever-morphing haloumi lately comes wound inside a crackling nest of kataifi phyllo with pickled peaches. Were those warm nuggets of crisp lamb belly sparking the cool lamb tartare scented with allspice and mint? The kebabs are great as ever, but an extra dose of dry-aged beef fat adds deeper savor to the Bulgarian beef-lamb kofta; ground chicken skin and sumac elevate the chicken shishlik.

And then I feasted on the veal chops dry aged in a blend of earthy fenugreek and chocolatey dried Urfa peppers. The chops are slow-roasted to a hauntingly juicy delicacy before a smoky flash on the grill and then a finishing touch of torator, a walnut-tahini sauce piqued with white anchovy.

It was a luxurious Israeli-Ottoman riff on vitello tonnato, and a compelling alternative to the lamb as centerpiece of a $60 mesibah tasting, still one of the city’s best multicourse dining values. It’s also proof the thrill of discovery at Zahav is as fresh and vivid as ever.


Zahav

237 St. James Place, Philadelphia; 215-625-8800, www.zahavrestaurant.com.

Israeli street food meets modern brilliance in the hands chef Michael Solomonov, whose wood-fired Society Hill kitchen turns out some of the most evocative and inventive little dishes in the city, from charcoal-grilled duck kebabs to fried cauliflower, soulful pomegranate-braised lamb shoulder and hummus so good it redefines hummus. The personable and knowledgeable servers ably guide diners through the small-plate menu (best in the affordable tasting meals), as well as a stand-out Israeli wine list that helps make Zahav a completely transporting experience.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Salatim and hummus (foul, masbacha or Turkish variations); laffa; Yemenite soup; crispy haloumi; fried cauliflower; house-smoked sable; fried sweetbreads; grilled duck hearts; Jerusalem kugel; grape leaves; kibbe naya; duck kebab; chicken shashlik; crispy branzino; lamb shoulder; kataifi; basboosa; hazelnut-date rugelach. Small plates, $7-$12; Tayim five-plate menu, $38; Ha'yom six-plate menu, $48.

DRINKS

An affordable beer and wine list, and a fanciful cocktail menu — a mint-juleplike classic lemonnana; Marble Rye infused with pumpernickel and caraway; and a gin Israeli Salad Martini with tomato and cucumber water.

IF YOU GO

Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.

Reservations recommended.

Wheelchair accessible (from rear of building)

Street and valet parking.

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