Restaurant Review: Zahav’s “Modern Israeli” Cuisine
The Philadelphia restaurant Zahav is a bizarre place. The name means gold in Hebrew and the intent is to provide “modern Israeli” cuisine, whatever that means of country not yet 70 years old.
Let’s get this out of the way: the food at Zahav is delicious. I had a lovely time there and would go back in a heart beat, particularly if somebody else was willing to cover the bill (it’s not cheap). The service was good, the decor and ambience delightful. In short, I liked it; maybe even loved it. But that doesn’t mean my experience didn’t raise some questions worth pondering here at the ol’ Octopus.
To begin, they served octopus. I kid. They don’t serve octopus, or any shellfish, or any pork, or any food specifically forbidden by the Jewish laws of kashrut (those that determine what is or isn’t kosher). And yet, they might as well have. Because Zahav is NOT a certified kosher restaurant. The meat they do serve: beef, lamb, chicken, and duck, has not been properly ritually slaughtered, and is considered traif (unkosher). And while they do not mix meat and dairy together, they do serve as separate dishes alongside each other, which also qualifies as a no-no.
I went with my parents, who are not particularly adventurous eaters. We had some hummus-tehina, which was delicious. That was an appetizer of sorts. Then we ordered small plates. We got some fried cauliflower, and an assortment of chicken, lamb, and duck dishes. We also got some crispy haloumi, a kind of cheese, ensuring that our meal was not kosher. We got some ice cream for dessert for good measure.
In principle, I see nothing wrong with ostensibly Jewish restaurants serving non-kosher food. There is no more Jewish act than eating a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York’s lower east side (it’s much holier than putting on tefiilin at the Kotel) and Katz’s pastrami is strictly traif. Speaking of Traif, the Brooklyn restaurant of the same name is, in my mind, a thoroughly Jewish establishment. By explicitly defying the laws of kashrut, it’s implicitly asserting their cultural significance. It’s not unlike the Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchists of New York of a hundred years ago who threw lavish balls on Yom Kippur, thereby honouring the sacred day with their sacrilege.
So no, it’s not Zahav’s lack of kashrut that offends me. Nothing about the restaurant offends me. It’s great. But I would assert that the restaurant is hardly Israeli, and barely Jewish.
Let’s start with the food. The two tasting menus (neither of which we ordered) were given Hebrew names, one called “Ta’im” (meaning tasty) and the other “Mesibah” (meaning party). The meats were called “Al Ha-Esh” (on the fire, or on the grill). All very cute. And yet apart from the hummus, nothing jumped out as me as especially Israeli. I recognize that “Israeli” cuisine is really a hodge-podge of culinary traditions from all over the Jewish world: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian. But this felt more “nouveau” than “Israeli.”
According to my advisor Hasia Diner, there’s no such thing as Jewish food at all, except for matzo (the bread of affliction I’m suffering with now). All other ostensibly “Jewish” food is actually Polish, or Moroccan, or Rumanian, or from wherever Jews lived, but kosherized for Jewish consumption. But I really didn’t recognize Zahav’s food as very Jewish or Israeli. If you had told me it was a Spanish restaurant, I might have believed you, though I’d have wondered what happened to all the pork.
Then there’s the fact that the food at Zahav is served tapas style, in small plates. Small plates?! No Jew ever wanted a small plate of anything. I heard Jackie Mason‘s voice kvetching in my ear: “You call this a portion?” If I’m going to order something, I want mountains of it so I can stuff myself silly, not have one bite and be left hungry for more. Have you seen the sandwiches at Katz’s or Second Avenue Deli? That’s what a portion looks like.
And then there’s Zahav’s decor. It’s perfectly pleasant. There are a few Jewy markers, like the stained glass panels above the kitchen, the mezuzah on the front door, and the Hebrew writing on pictures on the bathroom door. There’s also a large photograph of an Israeli shuk, or marketplace, though you’d only recognize it as such if you knew what you were looking for. But for the most part, it just felt like your typical chic restaurant: lighting a little too dim, music a little too loud. And that music? Modern pop and hip hop, without an Israeli tune to be heard. Which is weird because Israeli music is actually quite good. I did catch one Matisyahu song, but that doesn’t really count.
And the lack of Jewish content in the food and decor was matched by the lack of Jewishness in the clientele. There were people of all different races and ethnicities and religions eating at Zahav. And that’s a good thing, and equally true of a place like Katz’s. But the difference, I think, is that everyone knows Katz’s is a Jewish deli. But I wonder if the non-Jewish clientele of Zahav realized that it was an Israeli restaurant, or was supposed to be an Israeli restaurant, or whether they just thought it was fancy, creative, exotic food in a swanky setting.
So to conclude, everyone should by all means go to Zahav. The food is delicious and makes for a wonderful dining experience. Just don’t expect it to be too Israeli, or too Jewish.