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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Passover at Zahav

For a year,  I've been hearing about how great the Passover dinner at Zahav was, in particular, the superlative brisket. Finally, the calendar has flipped around, and I had the chance to try it for myself.  It didn't take too much to convince me, I've had several very good meals at Zahav, so I trusted that chef Michael Solomonov would deliver, even if traditional Passover food is often more about symbolism than it is about culinary fireworks.

Solomonov has found an ideal middle ground by observing the cultural conventions (or referring to them, sometimes with a wink) but not being constrained by them. Zahav is not a kosher restaurant, but this meal follows the traditions of a Passover Seder, incorporating the expected elements, often with a twist, or update.

We started with good house-made Matzah, their always excellent Hummus, and a tower of various salads.  We especially liked the okra, the beets with tehina and walnuts, the harissa-laced eggplant, and the cuminy carrots.

Next was a soup featuring roasted Matzah Balls in an intense, dark, double-strength chicken stock, enriched even further by black garlic and a bit of dill. OK, it's not much to look at, but wow, it was delicious.
Next were slices of white tuna, accompanied by beets, with a touch of horseradish. Alongside was a platter of asparagus with a mustard dressing and walnuts, accompanied by a delicately boiled egg.
But I couldn't be bothered with those right away, because we were also presented with Leek Fritters with Charoset. These were ethereally light, yet creamy, yet crunchy - like an ideal latke that somehow didn't involve potatoes.  I'm going to be dreaming about these...
Of course, we had been starting to get full midway through the salad course,  so it was with some trepidation that we anticipated the arrival of the Coffee-Braised Brisket, with Schmaltzy Potatoes. 
I can't explain why, but all three of us went right around the meat and immediately speared a potato.  They were amazing: tender, crusty, and pleasingly unctuous from being slowly confited in fat.  Our server confided that it was actually fat from the brisket, not chicken schmaltz, that gave them that wonderful flavor and texture, but regardless of the origin of the cooking medium, they did indeed taste schmaltzy, in the best way.

But enough being coy - we dug into the brisket, and had surprising reactions. It was falling-apart tender, and strongly beefy, but not as exotic-tasting as we'd expected. But then a funny thing happened: as we ate more, the complexities revealed themselves, and new flavors began to emerge. Before long, it started tasting smoky, and earthy, with  hints of coffee, and the already intense meaty flavor was concentrating.  By a few bites in, we were  solidly addicted, and somehow forgot that we were about to explode from eating too much. I felt that it lived-up to the hype that my friend had generated, and I look forward to having it again - maybe next year, or, maybe later this week...

And just as we were feeling quite happy and satisfied, if over-stuffed, dessert arrived.  How had we forgotten about dessert?!? It was a riff on Matzoh Brei, softened matzoh fried with eggs. This version made a stuffed french toast from the matzoh, and topped it with red wine spiced ice cream. It was satisfyingly crunchy and fruity, evoking a classic crumble or cobbler.

On of our party couldn't have the ice cream, so they were kind enough to send out a couple of alternate desserts, one a baklava adorned with rhubarb, the other a dense pistachio cake, also accompanied by rhubarb, which made us very happy, as we all happen to like rhubarb quite a lot. I especially liked the baklava, and I suspect that might be on the regular dessert menu, there is usually a version or two of this flaky, crispy dessert.

All in all, it was a delicious meal, and a bargain at $42 per person.  This special menu is only running during Passover, so you've only got until Tuesday, April 6 (2010) to get there.  I'd highly recommend visiting Zahav any time, but this special meal is quite interesting, and delicious, so it's worth making an effort to go right now. You don't need a long memory of Passover Seders, or to be Jewish, to appreciate this food (although either might help to explain some of the culinary references.) It's just delicious food, with extra cultural significance, but perfectly enjoyable as an abstract dining experience.

Our server was excellent - very friendly, helpful and informed. Chef Solomonov was nice enough to drop by and chat, and generously sent out some extra dishes for us to try, which made the evening all the more enjoyable (and filling...)  We were all swooning over the Jerusalem Grill, which features grilled duck hearts on dirty rice. Thankfully, that's on the regular menu, so we can go get that any time.  And we will, as this visit reminded us that Zahav is operating at a very high level, among the very best restaurants in Philadelphia, while remaining approachable.

So, go to Zahav, but more urgently, go now for the excellent Passover meal. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for this special menu.

Menu>> (thanks to Foobooz)

237 St. James Place (near 2nd and Walnut Streets)
Philadelphia, PA 19106

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