If there is one Philly restaurant that I constantly hear amazing things about, it’s Zahav. However, I was only able to try it out for the first time during Center City Restaurant Week because my friends don’t generally plan things far enough in advance to get a table at this very popular spot. When we did finally manage to get a Friday night reservation, I was excited beyond words…even if I had a month and a half wait between when I booked and when I would actually get to eat there. I was so thrilled, I didn’t even make a fuss when my dinner date rolled her eyes and wouldn’t let me take pictures of my food. Truth be told, I am no photog, and the only reason I even snap photos of every bite is so that you all will keep coming back for more.
I usually gravitate towards places with more exotic, extreme, or innovative options. As a Persian, girl, the food at Zahav isn’t all that exotic for me, but it still has choices that are far enough off of the beaten path, and even if they didn’t, everything out of the kitchen is impeccably made. One of the first mezzes (small plates) we tried was the Chicken Liver Mousse. Normally, I find chicken to be boring, but liver is another story entirely. This mousse came out with some crisp pickles to undercut the richness of the liver. The simplicity of the dish allowed the liver to shine and the portion size was just big enough to satisfy without filling me up too much.
For the more adventurous eaters out there, we also tried the Duck Hearts. Now, I’ve had duck hearts before, so I knew what I was getting into, and if you haven’t had them before, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the plunge and trying them. Here they came out grilled with chopped apples and a tehina. Without the other elements of the dish, the duck hearts were just okay compared to others that I’ve had, but when I had all the components of the dish on my fork, the flavors worked well together to highlight the hearts.
In addition to the duck hearts, I did manage to eat some food that would appeal to a wider audience, such as Hummus. One of the first things people mention about Zahav is the hummus, and with good reason. When we first arrived at the restaurant, we were given hummus along with a selection of salads called Salatim and Laffa bread. The hummus was smooth yet thick and packed with richness. However, the salads they brought out are what really blew me away. While this assortment ranged from cucumber salads to green beans, my two favorites were the roasted eggplant and the shredded pickled beets. The eggplant, which got some acid from the tomatoes, was great on its own and the beets contrasted nicely with the decadent hummus. This selection of salads is definitely something you should get whether it’s your first or fiftieth time at this spot.
While I loved all of the things I’ve mentioned above, the best dish of the night was the Fried Cauliflower. I never thought that I would list a vegetable dish as one that I would be happy eating for the rest of my life, but this cauliflower was one of the most amazing things I’ve eaten in a while. It was lightly fried and came with a mint, dill, chive yogurt sauce that packed a huge punch of flavor and offset the saltiness that normally comes with fried foods. While this dish had multiple elements to it to create texture and excitement, the cauliflower was definitely the star.
After our mezzes and other shared plates, we were each able to choose one al ha’esh, which literally means meat over coals. Deciding to try two different things, we went for the Duck Kebabs and the Lamb Merguez. I only took a bite of the duck kebabs, but they didn’t impress me as much as the small plates. The same thing goes for my lamb merguez. The flavors were there, and the lamb merguez would particularly appeal to people that enjoy a spicy kick to their food, but I was a bit disappointed. It seemed a bit one note compared to the levels of flavor found in the small plates. Sure, you can get them, but be sure to gorge on the appetizers first, that’s where the money’s at.
Even though we were both stuffed, when we saw our desserts, we were both willing to work through our pain in order to try the last part of our meal. The Tehina Semifreddo was one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Period. End of story. As most of my friends know, I have a huge sweet tooth, but I don’t normally go crazy over Middle Eastern desserts because the flavors just don’t appeal to my American half. Rose water overpowers everything, there’s not enough chocolate, and I think the Italians do pistachio ice cream better. Yet this semifreddo was the perfect balance of Middle Eastern and American flavors, as it was placed between two tehina cookies, but also came with a hot chocolate shot. The dessert portion was pretty generous, but as soon as I was finished mine, I wanted another. I’d easily come to this restaurant just for a quick dessert, if I was in the area.
With my high expectations, I was a little worried that there was no way that Zahav would live up to them, but I was blown away. I think this restaurant deserves all the praise it receives and I’m unsure why there are people out there who having nothing nice to say about it. While some of my dishes weren’t tens, I was wholly satisfied at the end of this meal, and would come back in a heartbeat, especially since their normal tasting menu is only four dollars more than their Restaurant Week special. To top it all off, when we left, we were presented with coupons for ten dollars off our next meal at either Zahav or Percy Street Barbecue. If all of these things don’t spell out a restaurant worth visiting more than once, I don’t know what does.