Philadelphia-based Israeli restaurant Zahav by chef Michael Solomonov was named the US’ top restaurant by the prestigious culinary organization The James Beard Foundation, whose annual awards are considered the Oscars of the restaurant industry.
Zahav won the “Outstanding Restaurant” prize in a ceremony on Monday night in Chicago attended by hundreds of industry leaders from across the US.
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Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew and is a reference to Jerusalem, first opened its door in Philly in 2008, serving Israeli, Jewish and Middle Eastern dishes with a modern twist, including chicken shishlik with carob and persimmon, duck and foie gras kebab, kubbeh, and laffa bread with hummus and salads. Desserts include a malabi custard, chocolate knafeh, and carrot basbousa (a Middle Eastern sweet cake).
Zahav is designed like the hidden courtyards of Jerusalem, with golden limestone floors and walls, hand-carved tables, and soaring ceilings.
The restaurant and its team have won a number of awards over the past decade.
— James Beard Foundation (@beardfoundation) May 7, 2019
The Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-raised Solomonov previously won the James Beard “Outstanding Chef” award in 2017, a prize that went to Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, NC this year.
Last year, Zahav’s pastry chef Camille Cogswell was named by James Beard as the “Rising Star Chef” of 2018.
In 2016, Solomonov’s book “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” which he co-authored with his business partner Steve Cook, won the James Beard “Book of the Year” award and Solomonov won an “International Cooking” award.
A year later, Solomonov starred in the documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine by filmmaker Roger Sherman which saw Solomonov make (and eat) his way across Israel to the elusive character of its cuisine.
Israeli cuisine “is full of delicious contradictions… A succulent array of dozens of distinct cuisines,” he says in the documentary.
Yemenite-Style Veal Ossobucco is available all week as an addition to Mesibah. Limited availability each night! And, hot tip – want to make it at home? Pick up Israeli Soul. #HappyChanukah #IsraeliSoulCookbook pic.twitter.com/Z3ZPWaIssE
— Zahav (@zahavrestaurant) December 4, 2018
Solomonov won his first James Beard award in 2011 when he was named “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.”
Over the years, he has been recognized for his accomplishments by The New York Times, Esquire Magazine and Condé Nast Traveler, to name a few. In 2014, he was named Eater’s National Chef of the Year.
Solomonov and Cook are behind a number of other notable eateries in Philadelphia including Goldie, a kosher falafel joint, Dizengoff, which serves hummus and shakshuka, The Rooster, a Jewish deli, and Abe Fisher, a restaurant led by Israeli-American chef Yehuda Sichel that serves “Jewish soul food.” They are also part of the team behind fried chicken and doughnut chain Federal Donuts.
Solomonov and Cook are reportedly also set to open three new restaurants later this year: K’Far (“village” in Hebrew), an Israeli bakery and cafe led by Cogswell, Merkaz (“center”), a sandwich shop, and Laser Wolf, which will be similar to Zahav.
The duo published their new cookbook “Israeli Soul” in January, and were recently on a “research and development” trip in Israel, as detailed in this Philly.com piece.
Potato and Leek Latkes (recipe in the #IsraeliSoulCookbook) with cherry wood-smoked & pomegranate-glazed salmon, served with housemade labneh. Available as a mezze each night of Chanukah. pic.twitter.com/XtXSTE0r9L
— Zahav (@zahavrestaurant) December 2, 2018
“The genius of Jewish cooking”
Dubbed “the genius of Jewish cooking,” Solomonov was born in Israel in 1978, and raised in Pittsburgh.
When he returned to Israel at the age of 18, he had no Hebrew language skills, but found work at a bakery, where his culinary career began. From there it was on to a culinary school in Florida, to work in Philly, to a job at an Italian restaurant Vetri.
During his stint there in 2003, he learned his younger brother, David, had been killed by sniper fire during army service in Israel.
The traumatic event launched him into a cycle of drug addiction, which he first divulged publicly to the New York Times a year later.
“At some point, it switched from me grieving,” he told Philly.com that year, “to using grief as an excuse to go out and get high.”
Solomonov says he was in the throes of the addiction when he opened Zahav in 2008 with Cook. An intervention by Cook and Solomonov’s wife Mary set him on a rehabilitation path he has walked on since.
But he’s aware of the dangers of addiction
“I feel like you can have a greater impact if you tell your story before you die,” he told Philly.com. “And I don’t look 20 years down the road. I look forward 24 hours. I wake up and make a decision about whether or not I’m going to stay clean today.”