Chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant won a regional James Beard Award on Israel’s Independence Day in May. In case anyone missed the significance of the date, Solomonov — whose restaurant is a platform for contemporary Israeli cuisine — pointed it out in his acceptance speech at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.
“That was pretty incredible,” he tells ISRAEL21c of the date coincidence and of the award itself, the highest national honor for professionals in the US restaurant industry. “It brings validity to what I do.”
The Israeli-born Solomonov opened Zahav with his partner, Steve Cook, in 2008 with the aim of putting Israeli-inspired dishes and Israeli-produced ingredients on American plates. “I want people to get what’s going on over there, and I think the easiest way to do that is through food,” he says.
Zahav (“gold” in Hebrew) is not a kosher restaurant, and most of its clientele is not Jewish. The menu has evolved quite a bit from the beginning.
“I was fully aware of the responsibility of showcasing and celebrating all the cultures that make up Israel — not just shwarma, schnitzel and falafel,” says Solomonov. “What we did was a little pedestrian at first: Moroccan soup, chicken shishlik [marinated chunks of meat on a skewer] with Israeli couscous and Israeli tomatoes; not pushing the envelope. Every Thursday night we featured a seven-course chef menu of modern European food with Israeli touches.”
Then the economy tanked, and Zahav retooled. “In the last year or two, we’ve become not only accepted but embraced on the restaurant scene, and we’ve started taking more liberties with our menu. It became tricky to be strictly Israeli. We used to import Israeli cucumbers and tomatoes but it doesn’t make sense in winter and environmentally it’s not sound.”
One of the dishes, for example, is shishlik made from organic chicken thighs marinated in juiced onions and garlic, accompanied by Pennsylvania-grown baby fingerling potatoes cooked in chicken fat and rolled in zaatar, the Middle Eastern oregano-family herb; grilled spring onions bathed in Israeli olive oil and vinegar; and a garnish of locally grown organic parsley.
“I’ve never eaten this in Israel, but it’s evocative,” Solomonov says. “I am a guy who has an Israel vision.”
The restaurant staff prepares fresh hummus daily. “Those who’ve been to Israel take a bite and say ‘Oh my God, it reminds me of that great hummus I had in Israel,'” says Solomonov, who also bakes lafa, fluffy Israeli flatbread, in a wood-burning oven.
“We crust beef cheeks with Ethiopian spice mix, braise them in Turkish coffee and then, when they’re cool, cut them into cubes and put them on a skewer and grill them. It’s what I’d call atypical Israeli cuisine.”
Restaurant is a tribute to fallen brother
Born in Israel in 1978, Solomonov and his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was young. He came back to Israel at 15 for a year of agricultural boarding school, then worked in an Israeli bakery and café between college and culinary school. Leaving his parents and brother in Israel, he moved to Philadelphia in 2000.
A restaurant was always in his plans. But it took the shape it did after his brother David was killed in action on Yom Kippur, October 6, 2003, at the Lebanese border.
Zahav is the result of Solomonov’s quest to simultaneously honor his brother and Israel.
Jerusalem stone is incorporated into the restaurant’s decor, and there’s a huge photo of Jerusalem’s busy open marketplace, Machane Yehuda, hanging on one wall. Solomonov had seen the picture and noticed that someone in the foreground was wearing a Philadelphia Flyers yarmulke. It was a natural for his eatery. “Since then,” he reports, “the owner of the yarmulke has come in to have dinner.”
Despite the solemnity of this mission, Solomonov is a droll speaker and doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of implementing his vision. A picky eater as a child, he retains a love of burekas, fried stuffed pastry dough. He remembers being sent to school with what he calls “ghetto schnitzel,” two pieces of coated fried chicken tenders between slices of Wonder bread.
He maintains that Israel’s most authentic national dish is jellied calves’ feet with hard-boiled egg — clearly not a crowd-pleaser. “If I had my own sovereign nation, chocolate sauce would be the national dish,” he told an audience at a TED presentation (see video below) in Philadelphia last November.
Solomonov also co-hosts Feastival, a benefit staged by Philadelphia’s top chefs. And last fall, he presented a meal at a fundraiser for Hazon, an organization working toward sustainable, environmentally responsible Jewish communities in the US and Israel. He used organic olive oil, olives, sesame and date products imported from Israel’s Negev Nectars. After the event, he bought out the company’s entire inventory of olive oil.
“The collaboration was natural for us because the products are sensational,” says Solomonov. “To not have those products at Zahav would be difficult for me because they’re totally unique and are great examples of Israeli agricultural innovation, such as phenomenal olives grown in brackish water.”
Though he takes great pride in Zahav’s growing reputation, and hopes it will inspire diners to visit the Holy Land if only for its food and wines, his ultimate goal is to open a boutique hotel in Israel that would win the country’s first Michelin star for gourmet restaurants.
Married since June 2005, Solomonov and his wife, Mary, a business analyst for a scientific media company, are expecting their first child this summer.