I like Zahav, but I always thought it was a bit overrated. After LaBan upped Zahav to 4 bells, I decided it was time for me to go back for a *third* visit (spaced out over the course of about a year) to try out a few new dishes and see if the place had improved since my last visit (about 6 months ago).
My most recent visit did not at all change my opinion. I would never discourage anybody from dining at Zahav. It is a very good restaurant. But it is not, in my opinion, better in any significant way than any of the other nicer places in town that LaBan recommended in his column the past couple weeks (including his "Best of the Rest"). Not better in food, service, and certainly not decor.
This post is going to focus on the food only.
I find the menu at Zahav to be different and interesting. It's a refreshing change of pace in a city where it's difficult to find an option that's not Italian or Asian. But different doesn't always translate into great tasting food. There are some legitimately great bites to be had at Zahav. But not enough to elevate the entire experience to greatness. I'm going to list an aggregate of the dishes I've tried over my 3 visits, and rank them from zero to four stars (my version of bells).
**** (Excellent. All below I rate at 4 stars.)
Hummus. I've tried all 3 versions, my favorite being hummus-foul (fava beans). All are outstanding and among the best I've had anywhere.
Lamb shoulder. I admit that this is a pretty spectacular dish. The best thing on the menu, and one of the best things being served in Philly right now. GET THIS.
Tuna basturma. Thinly-sliced raw tuna served with carrots and crispy lentils. Very high quality tuna, light and delicious. This isn't on the menu currently.
Fried Kibbe. If memory serves, these were stuffed with veal. They were like little croquettes, warm, creamy/meaty inside. Delicious. This isn't on the menu currently.
*** (Very good. All below I rate at 3 stars.)
Steamed Artichoke with kashkaval cheese & white anchovy. A successful steamed artichoke with a tasty dipping sauce on the side. This isn't on the menu currently.
Smoked Sable. This was served atop a challah "one-eyed susan" (a piece of toast with an egg in the middle). This was tasty, but I thought the fish portion was kind of small.
Gondi (Persian wedding soup). An very good chicken soup, served with four chicken and chickpea dumplings and dried cherries. The broth itself was very flavorful. I don't know whether the dried cherries are traditional or not, but their inclusion did not really do anything for me. The dumplings themselves were slightly heavy, and perhaps a little bland. This isn't on the menu currently.
Haloumi. Warm, crispy cheese served atop dates. You can't really go wrong with fried cheese, can you?
Apricot sorbet. Zahav's desserts are mostly not that great. This is the best one I've had. Refreshing apricot sorbet, served with a drizzle of honey on top. This isn't on the menu currently.
** (Average. All below I rate at 2 stars.)
Salatim. A mixed bag. I have yet to hear a single person rave about how wonderful the salatim are. Sure, some (like the beet and tahini salad) are great. But too many (like the sliced carrots served in a flavorless greasy dressing that I got last time) are just total misses. This is the most average part of the meal.
Duck Hearts. These sat atop a carrot and turnip salad, and were served with a smear of sweet onion puree. The onion puree was the best part of the dish. The duck hearts - they were ok. A little meaty, a little chewy. I probably would not order this again, but I'm glad I tried it.
Duck Kebab. Two grilled, ground duck patties served atop saffron rice. The description of the patties (ground with foie gras) promised more than was actually delivered. Slightly on the dry side (but passable), and heavily spiced with (if I'm not mistaken) sage. They weren't bad, but not great.
Chilled borscht. The beet red color made for a dramatic presentation of this cold soup. But ultimately the flavors were forgettable. This isn't on the menu currently.
Hanger Steak. Not the highest grade of steak. Sliced into cubes, skewered, and grilled. I felt that this was very average.
Kataifi. Stuffed with chocolate and served with mango marmalade and a scoop of labaneh ice cream on top. The most interesting part is the labaneh ice cream. I have tried this dessert a couple times. Many people noted a fruity flavor to the chocolate component. On my most recent visit, this was no longer the case. The crunchy component of the kataifi makes for an interesting textural contrast, but for some reason the whole of this dessert isn't quite the sum of its parts.
Hazelnut & date rugelach. This dessert was fun, but as with the kataifi, doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts.
Pickle amuse. These pickles are fine, but not any better than you would get in a good jewish deli.
As you can see I rated nothing below 2 stars. I've never had anything at Zahav that I would consider *bad*, and all of the cooking has always been competently executed. There are certainly flashes of greatness, but on the whole I am just not understanding the accolades that LaBan (and many other people on here) keep according the place.
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