This guest review was written by Kory Chester, who previously wrote the Imli Indian Kitchen Review. He recently had dinner at Zahav and shares his thoughts. Kory, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, is a personal chef and food consultant who aspires to be a food critic.
If you are a Philadelphia foodie, you know that Zahav is extremely difficult to book. I had been trying to book a reservation, on a decent day and time slot, for quite some time. With that being said, I was finally able to get a table to enjoy the Lamb Shack tasting menu and can now understand why so many enjoy this place.
Upon entering, I noticed the restaurant was filled to capacity on a Tuesday night at 9:15 p.m. Although full, the restaurant did not give off a crowded or claustrophobic vibe. The noise level, for me, was perfect, as there was the overall chatter of guests mixed with good choice of music. The lighting was very dimly lit and intimate. The bar, seats, tables, and, essentially everything in the place, is gorgeous.
My favorite thing about entering the restaurant was the greeting by staff members. Immediately, the hostess made us feel welcome and offered to rid us of our jackets. We were then seated promptly and courteously tended to.
The staff was bittersweet, in that they were more sweet than bitter. Though very well mannered with great intentions, sometimes they seemed in the way; the servers changed constantly almost every two minutes. If I were to give any feedback, it would be for the servers to be a little less invasive. They seemed to always be filling the water glasses, even if they didn’t need to be filled. Also, because of the tight space, so many servers in one area can seem overwhelming to the guests.
Aside from that, the staff was excellent; they were extremely knowledgeable and upbeat. They changed our silverware and dishes without asking and seemed very pleased to do so. One thing that stood out to me is that one server brought out the moussaka and asked if we knew what it was. Most of the table didn’t know, so he took time to describe each ingredient as he presented the dish to us. The entire staff, to me, showed the definition of manners and teamwork.
As I mentioned earlier, the restaurant is quite popular, always full, and the talk of the town. Knowing all this and having read the NY Times article on how good the hummus is here, I was expecting a heavenly meal. I know that Middle Eastern food is exotic and different in comparison to traditional American cuisine; therefore, I expected to come across a dish here or there that I wouldn’t understand.
The food is brought out in my favorite manner which is shared or tapas. When we sat down, the server stated what the menu was, and it didn’t seem as though there could be substitutions other than for dietary needs. Because I had heard and read such great things about the restaurant, my expectations for the food were very high. Of course, placing this much pressure on any restaurant can set you up to be disappointed. That being said, the food was good overall; there were dishes that were absolutely amazing, and some I personally didn’t care for. YMMV.
The highlights for me were the purple cauliflower, branzino, hummus and beef pastilla. The chef has amazing ability to make meatless courses seem hearty.
The servers brought out several salatim dishes with hummus and laffa followed by the mezze dishes and main courses before finishing off with two desserts.
Perhaps the smaller menu didn’t allow the dishes to reach their full potential, or it could also be because of the 9:15 dinner reservation, but some dishes did not blow me away. I do, however, always try to judge my experience on memorable moments/dishes. Zahav definitely created many memorable moments for me with food and ambiance, but some of the dishes were, for lack of a better word, fair. This is not to say anything was bad, but some dishes tasted like they were cooked well ahead of time. I could be wrong, but that was my impression.
Roasted Fennel, Kashkaval Cheese, Hazelnut Dukkah, Schug. I don’t know how the chef did it, but he made me like fennel. This didn’t have a licorice taste at all. Instead, it was a fresh and nutty vegetable plate.
Beef Pastilla garnished with Apple, Sour Cherry, and Horseradish. This dish was a standout and very well done. This dish made the diners’ and my perception of a “pastilla” (an elaborate meat pie with origins from Morocco) an enjoyable one. One of my favorite things is when a garnish enhances an already good dish to another level, and that is the case here.
Crispy Persian Wedding Rice. This could be one of those dishes I just personally don’t understand. It looked great, but, to me, it tasted of nothing. I preferred the crispy exterior of the cake, but the interior was soft and seemed to not be very flavorful.
Purple Cauliflower garnished with Turnips, Enoki Mushroom, and Tehina. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what people should feed to kids to make them like veggies. This dish was well seasoned and very well balanced, and, surprisingly enough, I didn’t miss meat at all. Simply delicious.
Whenever you have lamb or any item as part of the menu title, guests expect that dish to be the star. The lamb was good, but it could have been better. Overall, this restaurant is gorgeous , unique, and memorable. You should go especially to experience Israeli cuisine if you have never done so. Or simply to check it off your restaurant bucket list. I think it is very good, worth all the raves it gets, but not everything on this particular menu hit a home run for me. I will definitely return, of course.