Brotherly Love Of Israeli Cuisine | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Brotherly Love Of Israeli Cuisine

Brotherly Love Of Israeli Cuisine

Via zahavrestaurant.com

The restaurant is “kosher style for the sake of the cuisine and culture, not for religious beliefs.”

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There are memoirs with recipes, and cookbooks that also tell stories, but few authentic cookbooks are so anchored in powerful life events as “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). For Solomonov, his younger brother’s death while serving in the Israel Defense Forces propelled him in a new direction: He found his way by exploring the full range of Israeli cuisine and developing it for an American palate.

“Zahav” the book is named for the award-winning Philadelphia restaurant owned by the authors, with Solomonov as executive chef and Cook heading up the business side. When Zahav opened in 2008, it was one of the first restaurants in the U.S. to showcase the wide range of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and immigrant cooking traditions that are incorporated into modern Israeli cuisine.

Solomonov was born in Israel, in a small town south of Tel Aviv; his mother had grown up in Ohio, the daughter of active Zionists, and his father was born in Bulgaria and came to Israel with his parents as a 2-year-old. When Solomonov was 2, his family moved from Israel to the U.S. and he grew up in Pittsburgh. Back then, his favorite meal was rice and peas, served on separate plates.

When he was 15, he moved (begrudgingly) back to Israel with his parents and younger brother David. He returned to the U.S. as soon as he could and attended college and then cooking school, while his brother graduated from high school in Israel and entered the army. In the summer of 2003, when Michael had a break from a coveted restaurant job in Philadelphia, he visited Israel during David’s military leave. Just a few weeks later, on Yom Kippur, David — who was filling in so that a religious army buddy could take the day off — was killed by Hezbollah snipers on a hill overlooking Lebanon.

Solomonov then had a rough time, turning to drugs, as he mourned his brother. Two years later, he seized an opportunity to become the chef at a place owned by Steve Cook, a former Wall Street executive turned chef and restaurateur. For the first time, Solomonov “set free the Israeli influences that had begun to seep into my consciousness,” as he writes, adding dishes like his own interpretation of Yemenite soup, to their menu. He then became more passionate about Israeli cooking, seeing it as a way to honor his brother’s memory, and the two men opened Zahav in downtown Philadelphia, its design inspired by a courtyard in the old city of Jerusalem. Since then, the restaurant had garnered fine reviews, distinguished awards and an enthusiastic clientele. 

This is a beautiful cookbook, with full-color photos of the flavorful dishes, as well as views of multi-generational family meals and the colorful produce and spices that are among the key ingredients. Cook and Solomonov wrote the book together in Solomonov’s voice, including many stories of his family, with lessons on rice from his Persian half brother-in-law and recipes based on his Bulgarian grandmother’s borekas, which she made in her toaster oven when ovens were too expensive for most Israeli homes. 

Last month, Cook and Solomonov were in New York City to launch the book. They are the type of partners who finish each other’s sentences. Solomonov is wearing a black T-shirt, exposing a tattoo on his muscular left upper arm of a striking colorful rooster, with the words of the Shema inside, and “David” (his brother), above it. He says that he likes roosters (many chefs have pig tattoos) and also has elephants circling his right upper arm (“from earlier days”) and robust pomegranates on that forearm (he quips that he’s working on getting all of the seven species of Israel). 

Cook, the son of a Reform rabbi who served in congregations around the country including Rockville Center, L.I., did a lot of cooking even while working on Wall Street, before leaving to open his first restaurant. Of the two men, he’s the one who does Shabbat dinner with his wife and children. For Solomonov, Shabbat, “right now involves lighting candles, saying motzi, drinking grape juice, and then I go back to work.”

Solomonov explains that the restaurant is “kosher style for the sake of the cuisine and culture, not for religious beliefs.” The owners neither mix meat and milk, nor do they serve pork or shellfish. They understand the needs of some customers who practice kashrut and, for example, on request, have served hummus at the bar on a paper plate. By its nature, “Zahav,” the book, is suitable for kosher kitchens.

For Solomonov and Cook, this cuisine is all about generosity and sharing. Over the years, the menu at Zahav has evolved, and they continue to experiment, incorporating new influences. The general manager of the place is a Turkish immigrant, who started there as a busboy.

Their recipe for tehina makes four cups of what they call “Israel’s mother sauce.” Tehina, a building block in many recipes, as it can enrich dishes without adding butter or cream, “might be the least sexy ingredient (it’s the color of wet sand; it sticks to the roof of your mouth), but I haven’t seen many culinary problems that tehina couldn’t solve.” 

Among the recipes in “Zahav” are Chicken Pastilla with Cinnamon and Almonds, Chopped Liver with Gribenes, Yemenite Chicken Soup, Fried Artichokes, Rice Pilaf, White Fish in Grape Leaves, and “Mom’s Honey Cake with Apple Confit” (a hit at our Rosh HaShanah table) and the many small salads served in Israel that they like to feature in the restaurant. This is food that works well both for daily meals and the plentiful tables of Shabbat, holidays and special occasions.  

Since opening Zahav, Solomonov and Cook have also partnered to build several other restaurants in Philadelphia: Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher and Percy Street Barbecue. When asked about opening a branch of Zahav in New York, they say that’s unlikely, but perhaps they’ll expand one of their other places to New York. While many who think and write about the food world see food as something beyond the stuff we eat, these men are more straightforward.

“I think food might just be food to us,” Solomonov says. “We love it. It has allowed us to afford businesses we love.”

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