Zahav Kitchen Counter - A Gluten Free Experience to Remember

While I still consider myself new to the Philadelphia food scene, I couldn't miss the rumble of press that Chef Michael Solomonov and his modern Israeli restaurant,Zahav, were making.

In August 2011 Zahav announced a truly special prix fixe experience: every Friday and Saturday evening four lucky guests are seated at the kitchen counter for an expansive 9 to 10 course off-menu feast prepared especially for them by Chef Solomonov.  

I resolved not to visit  Zahav at all until I had landed a spot at the kitchen counter.  On the first day of each month, I faithfully sent my email at 12 noon requesting four seats for any available Friday or Saturday.   Seriously, I would take any available Friday or Saturday and gladly clear my schedule for this experience!  After several months of furtive emailing (I even scheduled automatic emails to send out at precisely the moment registration opened), I was nearly at my breaking point.  

On January 1, 2013, I received a phone call offering me the coveted kitchen counter reservation for Friday, February 1.  What?!  Did I hear the hostess correctly?  Obviously, I accepted the offer.  I’m sure my excessively enthusiastic appreciation could be felt over the phone line—I could have kissed her, I was so excited!  What a great way to start the new year!  

Now, who was going to attend this special, once-in-a-lifetime event with me?  While I had a number of interested parties, I chose to go with the family.  I took my oldest sister, Francesca, my twin Maria (Mia), and Mia’s long-term boyfriend, Matt.   

On the day of the event I was giddy with excitement!  Mia and Matt made it in from Harrisburg just in time for us to rush out the door and head to Old City.  In our hurry I forgot my camera—unfortunately, we were already running too far behind to turn back for it.  Although I did capture some of the experience on my cell phone (and so my apologies for the poor quality of the photos), I really regret not having better evidence of my evening. 
Walking into  Zahav  the general atmosphere is welcoming and sets an even tone for your meal.  But I think it is the staff themselves that really catch the customers’ attention.  We were welcomed by a gracious hostess and Brian Kane, one of the managers and sommelier, before they even realized that we were the kitchen counter visitors.
Escorted to our seats we settled in and were offered the drink pairing—honestly, I am glad we did not take that route because I am not sure where we would have put it, with all the food!  It was, however, a tempting choice.

Our server for the night, Michael Ferrari, was lively and entertaining but consistently professional and welcoming.  It was refreshing to see someone achieve a healthy balance of strict professionalism and yet still exhibit a distinct personality and socialize with his guests.  While I spoke with several of  Zahav's staff, I think that Michael really makes the kitchen counter experience particularly enjoyable.  Using his extensive knowledge of culinary experiences to educate guests while befriending them and making them feel comfortable, Michael is a real gem.  

The first item to our table were these amazing Israeli organic olives.  I’m not typically a huge olive eater—but despite the fact that we were eating a 10 course meal, I still managed to demolish the olive bowl with, I might add, very little help from Fran. 

There was a moment that I was beyond full, and yet with a glance at those damn olives I was back to eating them again!  Where was I going to find room for dessert with all these olives?

Our first course of the night was  Zahav's famous hummus, one of the items I had hoped to see make an appearance.

What made this hummus stand out from  Zahav's standard hummus was the biltong that had been dry cured for a month. 

Both Mia and I commented that, contrasting with a typically heavier hummus, Chef’s Solomonov’s dish was light as a feather and bursting with flavor.  The saltiness contributed by the biltong was a particularly nice touch.

The second course was a roasted garlic confit potato salad, served at room temperature drizzled with a high quality Israeli olive oil, a pungent pepper cilantro sauce and whipped feta.  I’m not sure which of the ingredients was the show stopper—the bite in the sauce or the airiness of the whipped feta?  Michael shared some secrets with me and Fran on whipping feta, a trick both of us have tried with somewhat less successful results than Chef Solomonov.  After the entire night, I still deemed this course my favorite—most likely because of its absolute uniqueness and my fear that I may never experience that precise flavor combination again.

Third was farmers’ carrots.  I started to catch on to the Chef’s love of vegetables—a passion we both share.  Chef Solomonov was using vegetables in almost every course—using vibrant colors to give that wow! factor to the plating.  Michael informed us that the Chef has a close friend who maintains an organic farm in Lancaster County and that one of the chief components of organizing the kitchen counter meals is the surprising contents of a truck arriving directly from that farm.  The carrots were very good—but compared to the preceding dishes, they ranked lowest on the scale.  

The next course was a variation of a Caesar Salad.  This watercress salad came out and I was immediately salivating!  The star was the Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese (Kashkaval), reminding me of a mix between Parmesan and Mozzarella.  Combining this with the crisp onion, acidic pickle, and crunchy pomegranate seeds, this salad earned high marks.  

The watercress salad was followed by a cauliflower soup.  The smell was so attractive that I had trouble listening to Michael describing its ingredients—I was more focused on how badly I wanted to dig into this gorgeous soup!  As we watched the waiters pour the soup into our bowls we could see how perfectly creamy the soup was.  First bite in, and WOW, the flavor was there! This soup was earthy yet bold. The curry and turmeric brought sophistication to the dish, while the fried mussel and pistachios added that much needed crunch. Though we had started determined to keep a careful ranking of our preferred courses, at halfway through it was already getting too hard!

Pacific tuna tartar was introduced as the sixth course.  Accompanied by a brusselkraut (sauerkraut made with brussel sprouts rather than cabbage), roasted brussel sprouts, and a subtle orange sauce—all of which are favorites of mine—I set high expectations on this dish.  Unfortunately, it did not live up to my self-created hype.  I was looking for something more and there was just something missing about this dish—I was a little surprised by the lack of intense flavor personalizing each other course.  The tuna was of fantastic quality, the brusselkraut was delicious—but I just didn’t love this dish.  Though a bit of a disappointment, I think it was only so because immediately compared with the rest of the feast.  

Next up was lamb and pork wrapped in eggplant.  The lamb was flavorful and the eggplant cooked to perfection, bordering that chewy-crunchy state.  As Michael told us early on, “we hope each dish we bring out raises the bar that much more,” and they were succeeding!

The dishes continued their rise with a seared striped bass—the Chef got a nice crisp to the outer skin and yet the meat of the fish was moist and tender – this was a direct result of the open coal fire.  The sweetness of the cinnamon and cardamom glaze on our squash gave the dish an edge that it needed.  I find that when I typically order fish it is either already dry when it hits your table or by halfway through the meal, and this is always a disappointment.  Not so here!

Our main course was a grilled rib eye kebab over an herbed saffron parsley rice.  Though Mia and I had a few fattier pieces of meat, this contributed to the flavor and—again—the meat was perfectly cooked.  Michael again tutored me and Fran on preparing our own steak at home without over-cooking.  The rice was fully cooked but maintained a nice crunch to it and had a full-bodied flavor—even at this point, where I had cleared nine plates, I could still have devoured an additional plate of this rice!

Before our final course and the well-anticipated dessert, we were given an additional drink - a saffron strawberry ginger daiquiris. Which, to be honest, we were all grateful to have a few moments to digest and breathe while we enjoyed our daiquiris.  Where did we put all that food?

Between some of our courses Chef Solomonov took the time to come out and speak with us.  Humble and extremely down-to-earth, you could see how incredibly passionate he is about his work and sharing his gift with both his customers and his staff.  It was an absolute pleasure to speak with him, and though he profusely thanked us for coming, it was our honor.

Now for our final course, dessert!  By now I am sure you’re thinking—get real, where are they going to put any more food?  HELLO!  It’s dessert!  We will find room!  And each of us cleared our plates of a flourless almond chocolate cake accompanied by a dairy-free ice cream and a poached kumquat compote.  The cake was not remotely dry and the compote added a nice sweetness to the dish. 

With the night wrapping up, I asked the table what their favorites were, and of course Mia said “I was partial to dessert, it was pretty amazing.”  An understatement, but well said Mia, well said.  

As we finished dessert it was getting late and we were watching the kitchen staff cleaning up after a sublime evening.  I was expecting us to be rushed off, but much to my surprise we were still welcomed and provided with gentle cups of Israeli mint tea.  Trust me when I say that this tea was greatly appreciated and desperately needed!  

My final review is as follows:

I think it is extremely difficult and a rarity for a restaurant to be able to serve such consistently amazing dishes. What made these dishes as enjoyable as they were, was not only freshness of the ingredients, the execution of the dish, but the creativity that was ever-so powerful on each dish.

Zahav, which means Gold, really is living up to its name!

I will most certainly be back soon, and with my camera this time! Perhaps maybe even finding myself lucky enough to attend the kitchen counter once more. 

The entire experience was an honor. Both Chef Solomonov and his staff made it such a personal experience.  

While I am skipping out on a boat load of details and my experience watching the staff work so well together... all you really need to know is that I am deeming Zahav as my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia - it only took almost 2 years for me to find a favorite!


  1. Great review. I think I'll try to snag a rezzie when I'm in town. Doubt I'll get the coveted kitchen counter, but I'm dying to try this anyway.


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