James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov is standing in Goldie, a vegan and kosher restaurant in Philadelphia’s Center City, putting into words his food evolution. Goldie is one of six restaurants that Solomonov owns with business partner Steve Cook as part of the CookNSolo restaurant group, and it has earned a following for its falafel and shakes.
Outside a snow squall swirls, and Solomonov wears a striped knit cap low over his ears.
On the table in front of him is a tray of falafel, made from an Israeli machine that spits them out with remarkable speed, as well as a paper pocket of pita strips, schwarma fries and six colorful tehina sauces that range in heat from an amba with pickled green mango to a schug with spicy serrano. Next to this tray of delights is a green salad with kale, beets and toasted sunflower seeds — a salad that one might aspire to make at home but not execute at this level.
This food is fresh, colorful and fun.
When Solomonov arrived in Philadelphia in the early 2000s, Center City’s food scene was full of grand restaurants and small plates. Philly living was half the price of New York City, and there was experience to gain in this “big restaurant era.” But Solomonov remembers thinking that while the meals served at these restaurants were, of course, delicious, “everything was precious.” Trips home to Israel got him thinking. “There were 35 salads and hummus on the table, and I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” he said. “Everyone was like small plates, small plates, tapas. Mèzze beat that by hundreds of years.”
Mèzze does have centuries on America’s small-plates movement — it’s also more organic and more communal. Solomonov decided to bring this spirit to what is now his signature restaurant, Zahav, which serves modern Israeli food and has a months-long wait for reservations. It’s also earned Solomonov four James Beard Awards, one of which he won with Cook for their cookbook based on Zahav. Their second book, “Israeli Soul,” published this past fall.
Now, Solomonov reaches unceremoniously across the table at Goldie for one of the falafel and pops it in his mouth. A trio of Baltimore foodies has come in on the first stop of a restaurant road trip. The owners of Harmony Bakery, a gluten-free bakery in Hampden, recommended Goldie as a can’t-miss, and they are excited to eat here.
Ever hospitable, Solomonov heartily welcomes them. He is open like this, gracious with compliments, and one gets the feeling this guy is ready to break bread with everyone in Philadelphia.
Hours later, Solomonov pulls laffa from the oven at Zahav, perfect puffs of bread speckled with sparkling salt that deflate with the first tug, as diners dig into bowls of hummus, served simply with butter and garlic or tehina or, on this day, with braised short rib, carrots and chick peas.
This is a place for vegetable haters. In fact, vegetable haters should come here at least once in their lives and then text their mothers: You were right. Salatim, or little bowls of individual veggies, arrive — earthy beets or nutty eggplant without any of that briny aftertaste that home cooks struggle to eliminate — and the table is suddenly vibrant with color.
Oh, but there is meat, too, including a kibbe naya, inspired by an Iraqi sandwich. Raw lamb topped with a hard-boiled egg is stacked between two slices of eggplant and served with amba, one of the many menu items that show up in more than one of CooknSolo’s restaurants. There is a branzino for seafood lovers, a hangar steak and chicken shashlik, served with tehina and, once again, amba.
Desserts include custard with caramel, pistachios and kumquats, which must be ordered because it’s divine and also because surely eating this unlikely fruit earns a diner all sorts of points and dietary dispensations.
Zahav embodies a few enviable restaurant secrets. The space is open and bright with carved wooden tables and multicolored pendant lights. Every table is full and stays full on this blustery 10-degree Wednesday night when most Philadelphians are snugly home and the streets are quiet. Diners chat and savor. In the background, Bell Biv DeVoe belts out its harmonic warning in “Poison.” It’s louder than music in any restaurant and yet everyone can carry on their conversations without shouting or straining to hear each other. These perfect acoustics add to Zahav’s cheerful, welcoming feel. Diners are not here to hide out from the polar vortex; they braved the cold for this.
Then there were doughnuts …
Solomonov and Cook opened Zahav in 2008, just in time to greet the recession. It obviously did well in a precarious time for new businesses, and they decided to open a barbecue place, thinking the universal appeal of barbecue, its low-tech profile and the ease with which it’s prepared would make for a sure hit.
“We were wrong about all of it,” Solomonov said.
Making barbecue was very time consuming, and diners had a lot of thoughts on how it should taste. “Everbody’s been to Memphis once,” he said. The place closed, and the duo looked eagerly for its next challenge, settling on an unexpected next sibling in this family of restaurants: Doughnuts. More specifically clouds of cake fried right in front of customers and dipped into cinnamon and sugar to make a circle of sweet simplicity that Philadelphians know as Federal Donuts.
There are seasonal specials, like a hot chocolate doughnut dotted with marshmallows for this cold week or sufganiyot’s jelly-filled spheres for Chanukah. But Federal’s well-known offering that siren-calls diners into its storefronts is the chicken and doughnuts. Juicy on the inside with the right crunch of a crust, the chicken is served with a plain cake doughnut in an all-American pairing that makes it the almost direct diet opposite of Zahav’s vegetable rainbow. But that’s the beauty of doughnuts: Who cares?
“Zero.” That’s how much doughnut making-experience Solomonov and Cook had, he said. But they had the help of Tom Henneman, a Catonsville native who had been living in the city since the 1990s and finds its restaurant scene an easy second home.
“It’s growing. It’s ever growing, it’s ever changing, and it’s ever expanding,” said Henneman, whose family still lives in Baltimore and whose father only the week before had sent him Orioles Fanfest photos with Eddie Murray.
Henneman met the CookNSolo crew when he ran a coffee shop next to Xochitl, a Mexican restaurant that Cook also owned, but was ready for the “fun little side project” of Federal Donuts. Within the first week, they started selling out of chicken and doughnuts shortly after opening each morning.
“On day two, we were like, ‘Wow, we are onto something,’” Solomonov said.
Now there are five Federal Donuts throughout the city, including at Citizens Bank Park.
Let’s meet Abe
Henneman is not the only Baltimorean with a hand in this Philly restaurant empire. Pikesville native Yehuda Sichel serves as chef for Abe Fisher, which is “Jewish Jewish” to Zahav’s “Israeli Jewish,” he said. Not that this stops gentiles from eating there.
“Who would have thought a plate of latkes and sour cream would get people excited,” Sichel said. “It’s cool.”
The aforementioned latkes are plump with potatoes and crisp on the outside, served with sour cream and apple sauce. There’s also borscht tartare and chicken liver mousse. And pickles. So many things are pickled in the CookNSolo world.
Sichel, who grew up in an Orthodox family, left Baltimore to check out other cuisine out in the world — Asian fusion, Italian and more. He first tried Zahav as a diner, but within a few minutes of absorbing its colorful and flavorful atmosphere, he knew he had to work there and eventually became a line cook, working alongside Solomonov.
“We’d put out lunch for 25 to 75 people, just the two of us. We grew close,” Sichel said.
But the Philly food community is like that. “It’s among the best in the world, but it feels very small at the same time,” Sichel said. “It’s a tight community that is diverse, welcoming and innovative.”
Jessica Gregg is managing editor of Baltimore Style, a sister publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.