Upgraded from 3 bells.
Young chefs, especially those lucky few with the kind of incandescent creativity that surges through Michael Solomonov, often need time to get out of the way of their own talent.
Such was the case with Zahav, the evocative tribute to modern Israeli flavors that he and partner Steven Cook opened nearly four years ago in Society Hill.
"I was confused," concedes Solomonov, 33, who debuted in this glass-and-Jerusalem-limestone box of a room with two separate menus: one a faithful ode to traditional Israeli street food; the other an overthought, esoteric ramble of fussy Nouveau Med plates.
Much has changed since then. The service has both mellowed and become focused under the buoyant Eilon Gigi. The wine list collected an intriguing cellar of fine Israeli and Lebanese wines. And since the chef smartly merged these two menus a couple of years ago into one soulful, more harmonious stream of za'atar-dusted inspirations - winning national awards from James Beard along the way - he has become one of our true culinary stars.
No chef in the city is creating food as thrillingly personal and well-executed. It's little wonder his fans will stand in line for harissa-dusted fried chicken and pomegranate-glazed doughnuts at the obscure South Philly corner that is his quirky Federal Donuts.
His small plates at Zahav, meanwhile, are vivid, fresh, and inventive, whether it's a riff on Yemenite soup with braised turkey and baby turnips bathed in earthy fenugreek broth, or a nod to his Eastern European roots with house-smoked sable mounded atop fresh challah that oozes egg yolk when you take a slice.
You'll see Solomonov most nights working dough in front of the wood-fired taboon oven, dusting sesame and spice atop the pliant scrolls of warm laffa pita that come to each table, often with a plate of the planet's silkiest hummus (try the buttered Turkish variation) and a wrought-iron tree of eight "salatim." Don't skip these unique little salads, which, ranging from beets in tahini to winter tabbouleh with apple, pomegranate, and walnuts, hint at Solomonov's gift for vegetables. His deep-fried cauliflower with herbed labne yogurt is also rightfully legendary.
But Zahav is also a carnivore's haven, with a glossy hunk of amazingly tender lamb shoulder on the bargain $45 Mesibah tasting - brined, smoked, braised in pomegranate juice over chickpeas, then served with crispy yellow rice - that is simply profound. Then there is the coffee-braised brisket he melds with cherries and turmeric into a cake of crispy fideos noodles for Jerusalem kugel. The charcoal-grilled kebabs, whether chicken marinated in mango pickle over pumpkin pilaf, or duck ground with foie gras, clove, and pistachios beside tangy-sweet streaks of barberry puree, are simply sublime.
Adventure eaters shouldn't miss the meaty grilled duck hearts, or the minted raw lamb kibbe. Even better: a paper cone of crispy sweetbreads fried with chickpea flour and pungent green skhug, just one of the many spice blends that lends Zahav, despite its modern approach, the convincing echo of a faraway, exotic place.