I have a standing invitation from Chef Michael Solomonov to bake Iraqi-style laffa bread with him at Zahav, where he and his business partner, Steven Cook, offer classic Israeli tastes in a modern setting near the historic cobblestones of Dock Street in downtown Philadelphia.
When it actually came time to pencil in a visit, things didn’t quite work out. That’s because the 33-year-old winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic was away on a scheduled visit to Paris and Budapest to check out the kosher food scene there in anticipation of the opening of Citron and Rose, his new European-inspired glatt kosher place set to debut this summer in Merion, on the Main Line outside of Center City.
Of course, I did make it to Zahav (Hebrew for “gold”), to get a sense of what kosher diners will be in for (in a very different culinary concept, of course) when Citron and Rose opens, but the invitation to bake laffa bread remains open.
Solomonov, who says he moves between American and Israeli culture, told me that Israeli food is “huge, vast — I mean there’s North African, Balkan, Arabic and Yemeni, and all these things” have not been well represented on the American culinary scene. His own family background is Balkan.
Solomonov was born in G’nei Yehuda, Israel, and grew up in Pittsburgh, with intervals in Israel, where he took a job at a bakery in Kfar Saba and then became a short-order line cook at a restaurant there — two stints that first got him interested in becoming a chef.
He eventually enrolled in the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla., and graduated in 2000, going on to culinary work in the Philadelphia area.
On Yom Kippur 2003, his brother David, a staff sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed by Hezbollah fire while on patrol on the Lebanese border. Solomonov saluted David’s fellow troops by preparing a meal for them while in Israel.
At Zahav, which opened in 2008, a large photograph of Jerusalem’s colorful Mahane Yehuda marketplace, suspended over the restaurant’s Arab-inspired wood-burning taboon (stove), gives visitors a feel for Israel’s capital.
Solomonov’s cooking reflects a wide range of Israeli, Middle Eastern and Balkan influences — but you won’t find falafel or shwarma. How about red salt-roasted beets with tahini; Moroccan-style carrots; warm Turkish hummus; fried cauliflower with labaneh and chive, dill, mint and garlic; spice-crusted cobia [a fish] with shakshouka and crispy sea beans; and crispy branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) with black-eyed peas, apple, celery root, and dill? The kataifi dessert combines sweet Valrhona chocolate and mango with tart labaneh ice cream.
Solomonov, who has appeared on “Nightline’s” foodie feature, “Platelist,” is very enthusiastic about the new glatt kosher restaurant. He says it’s “going to be something unique and something special, and obviously personal to us as well, being Jews.” It will be his take on European Jewish food.
The restaurant’s menu will feature meat cooked over a charcoal rotisserie grill, house-made Jewish charcuterie, an assortment of traditional pickles, vegetable dishes and salads, and freshly baked breads and desserts.
Citron and Rose will surely enhance the glatt scene in Philly. But I’m holding out for a visit to Zahav to finally bake laffa bread with Solomonov.