237 Saint James Place
Philadelphia, PA 19106-3936
Normally I am not a fan of Philadelphia magazine’s restaurant rankings. To me, they are basically catering to a suburban Pennsylvania/South Jersey audience who have more money than they do taste. I am not saying I am better than them, I just feel that they don’t put a lot of the places that are truly superior on their lists - and for this, I am VERY grateful. I don’t need every yahoo in an Escalade lining up at Dimitri’s in Queen’s Village or any of my favorite little gems around the city, thus making the lines even worse. So, actually, I guess I should be thanking Philadelphia magazine. They have inadvertently been keeping my secret spots safe for years now.
Well, I have heard the buzz surrounding Zahav, and I was intrigued. Apparantly the owner flew the staff to Israel before they opened to taste the flavors and foods they would be serving first hand. That is pretty impressive by any standard. I heard rave reviews (and they were ranked #1 restaurant by Philadelphia magazine), so I had to see what all the fuss was about. I decided that the lunch route was probably the best way to go, as I obviously cannot afford to dine at most places that are ranked #1 by said magazine.
First of all, it is a bit difficult to find. It is located in a courtyard in Saint James Place, just to the northwest of I.M. Pei’s well known Society Hill Towers. It is very difficult to see from the street, shadowed by the three white luxury high-rises. After a moment of confusion, we realized it was up the stairs and through a nondescript entrance. There is a small sign hanging that finally gave it away. The inside is really, really nice. It is a rustic lodge style décor, with a large open cook station running along the back wall. The interior had lots of hardwood, including solid tables that were quite impressive - and the smell. Oh that smell. It was so fragrant and inviting, I would have eaten anything they gave me with no questions asked.
We sat and the server gave us an overview of the menu, but we already had a hunch which way we were heading. They have a deal that is about $25 for a tasting menu, but that is WAY out of my lunch budget. We started with the crispy Haloumi, which our server verified was his favorite appetizer, and that he would gladly wake up and eat every day of his life, while being excited about it over and over every day. He was not far off - the spongy, salty fried sheep’s milk cubes came out, and it was just a spectacular looking little plate of food. Admittedly, it was a tad heavy for lunch, but I was really hungry so I could have eaten twice as much of it. The exterior of each cheese cube was a bit crispy (nicely browned on the outside), and the interior had a little squeak to it (reminiscent of cheese curd), with a saltiness that reminded you of feta. They were served with deliciously toasted pine nuts, and a puree of dates that mixed with the crisp salty cheese perfectly, creating the without-fail sweet and salty combination that I love so much. This was a stellar pick, and I would gladly go back just for another taste.
For our lunch we both went with the sandwiches (known as Kadima on their menu). I had the Sabra, which is young chicken, served with sumac onions and fresh tomatoes in a laffa wrap. Now, I was immediately intrigued by the use of ‘sumac’ with the word ‘onions’. I had never heard of it as an ingredient, only as a more severe poisonous plant than poison ivy. Sumac is a large family of plants and the berries are used as a marinade/rub/salad dressing in different Middle Eastern kitchens. It gives food a sour/tart taste and is often chosen over lemon juice in Kabob marinades (learn something new every day I guess). The wrap, although smaller than I would have liked, was quite delicious, and completely packed with flavor. It was amazing how much the smoky grilled chicken and the zing of the sumac onions really contributed to a flavor explosion. A creamy spread of tehina rounded out the flavors and made sure there wasn’t a dry bite in the bunch. The laffa was fresh, warm and pliable which made the sandwich really quite nice. It is served with a pickle which was actually a cornichon, and although good, it really felt like for $10, there should be a side dish of something else on the plate.
The other sandwich was the Monsieur Merguez, a house-made merguez sausage, served with matbucha which is essentially a salad of tomato, roasted bell pepper, garlic and oil mixed together. Merquez sausage is a spicy lamb sausage, which was even better than the young chicken. It was also served with tehina and a cornichon. The tehina really matched well with the heat of the lamb sausage, and the matbucha gave it a really tangy flavor that was just delicious all around. I would gladly eat this food once a week for eternity. They really manage to craft some subtle flavors in with the large scale flavor explosions that emanate from every dish. It is certainly an experience I will not soon forget, and one I would certainly like to re-visit. The most surprising thing was that, although the portions were small, you left satisfied and actually quite full. The richness really creeps up on you, and next thing you know, you have been overtaken by an Israeli food coma.