Saturday, August 28, 2010
La Colombe and Zahav, Philadelphia PA
Surviving my trip to Camden despite a chance encounter with the wrong bus and some rather insistent homeless persons along my walk to and from the Adventure Aquarium, I arrived back in Philadelphia via bus safely and quickly. Thirsty and low on caffeine I decided to pay a visit to the roasters who had wowed my palate during three great meals via Vetri – La Colombe. Entering the small shop to the predicable aroma of coffee and the sounds of cappuccino machines I was surprised (but not really) to find a line of approximately ten at 5:30pm.
Browsing the small and well cultivated collection I inquired of the barista which blend was used at Vetri and he was surprisingly unaware that they used La Colombe products. No matter, my next question was about flavor profiles and noting my preference for chocolate, caramel, fig, honey, and wood over citrus he directed me to two blends – I bought a pound of each. As an added bonus, a second sales person was in the midst of re-filling their bakery case with fresh scones and canele. Selecting two canele the barista spotted me a free 12 ounce coffee, I settled the tab, and took a seat.
Lacking Wi-Fi I sat and browsed my map to see if there was anything fun I could see before my dinner reservations while I sipped my coffee. Deciding to taste the canele while fresh I will note that they were an excellent example – perhaps the second best I’ve had outside of Laurent Gras mignardise at L2o. Crunchy exterior, flawless eggy custard within, sweet without being overwhelming.
Having now consumed half of my first pound of Nizza I’m rather certain that is the version served at Vetri – but quite frankly, the cup of Monaco I had at the café was also quite excellent. All said, La Colombe’s limited lineup seems to allow them to focus on blends that work very well and the staff, shop, and sourcing are all top notch.
Making my way from La Colombe I began the slow walk across Philadelphia en route to the final dinner of my gastronomic tour – according to Phillymag I’d be visiting the city’s best restaurant a mere two hours later. Having never really been a fan of Middle Eastern food in the past I have to admit that my visit to Washington DC had done a lot to place Zahav on my list of “must eat” places for the trip – both Zaytinya and more so Komi had impressed my palate and dining sensibilities. Calling and e-mailing the restaurant a month in advance I will say that Jilian was the most helpful concierge in the city outside the folks at Bibou (unfortunately on vacation during my trip.)
Schlepping across town and visiting the tomb of the unknown en route I have to admit I was a bit taken back when I arrived at Zahav - I don’t know what I expected, but a strip mall style appearing restaurant on the second floor of a flavorless building in the middle of residential East Philadelphia was not it. Entering the space it was surprisingly large – the bar to the right, kitchen to the left, high ceilings and well spaced tables. Decorated darkly and sparsely in sandstone and splotches of stained glass with acceptable kitchen noise and what I can only assume to be “Middle Eastern” music playing overhead the restaurant definitely conveyed a cohesive theme and the bar was packed.
Greeted by the host (who actually remembered calling me the day before as “the guy who couldn’t hear a thing because you were at the Phillies game”) I was greeted and my bag stored before being led to my table, a cozy wooden two top near the windows in back. Seated I would next be greeted by my server and the Maitre D’ who introduced himself and said “So, you’re the guy who wants to try the lamb shoulder solo? No one has ever ordered it alone before, y’know?” Chuckling I did indeed confirm that I was the guy who’d asked Jilian if this was allowable – the rave reviews just seemed too good to ignore.
At this point I feel the need to divert my review for a moment in explanation. When I originally contacted Jilian I explained to her that I wanted to try the lamb, but if that prevented me from getting multiple rounds of mezze then I’d prefer go the small plates route, especially in the setting of the new seasonal tasting menu. I specifically told her the sweetbreads, crispy haloumi, and “The Hungarian” were dished I’d be interested in trying. Additionally, when I spoke to the Maitre D’ I again expressed my desire to taste “as many different things as I could” to which I received the response “I think you’ll be tasting about 90% of what we do this evening.” With a chef as talented as Michael Solomonov and a front of house trained under Danny Meyer I was thrilled.
With the Mesibah confirmed it would be only moments before my primary server, a delightful and pleasant young female, would arrive with a plate of spices and a bowl of pickled vegetables. Tasty and crisp the pickled cornichons, radishes, and olives were a nice opening taste but the spices – ranging from quite mild to scorching – were a bit lost on me since each dish was teaming with unique spicing blends at presentation.
Arriving next on the table and sharing space with the pickles and spices would be the oft raved Hummus-tehina with sesame paste, garlic, lemon, olive oil, cumin, parsley and house made laffa bread. Teaming with spice, most notably cumin, and smooth as silk save for the occasional chunky chick pea the hummus was fantastic. Crispy and mildly charred the laffa was a solid example, but not in the same ballpark as the light-as-air version at Komi.
The next dish, costing $24 on the standard menu, yet included in the $42 Mesibah would be the “sampling of Salatim.” A daily rotating selection of eight salads my selections seemed similar to those mentioned by previous friends and gourmands with a few unique items; smoked eggplant, stewed okra, beets with tahini, pickled wax beans, shredded carrots and jalapeño, Israeli salad, spiced fennel, and tabouleh. While no option was bad, the shredded carrots were quite unique and the stewed okra and smoked eggplant were both fantastic.
With the tiered tray cleared my proper mezze would begin first with the watermelon salad topped with Bulgarian feta, black olive paste, and crispy parsley. Not generally a fan of watermelon I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw the dish arrive but I quickly warmed up to it after taking a taste. Nicely picked and prepared the watermelon was surprisingly tame for such a potent fruit while the earthy olive paste, pungent feta, and intriguingly textured parsley added another dimension of flavor and depth. Very well thought out and not overly filling I was left excited for what would come next.
Following the Watermelon rather quickly (perhaps less than ten minutes) would be my second mezze - Fish kofte or “fish balls” made of halibut and served over spicy chickpeas and boiled English peas. Light and laden with herbs (cumin, cinnamon, cilantro) the packets were intense with flavor and the admixture of chickpeas and English peas was bright and bold.
Finishing the three small fish bits rather quickly I was next brought a pair of tongs and a large serving plate – the server stating “your lamb will be out soon.” Finding this weird having communicated my preferences and having been told “90%” only 30 minutes earlier I sat puzzled…for 45 minutes. While the water man would pass frequently and refill my beverage my server would not return again during the delay – as a matter of fact, the next time I would see her was when dessert was delivered as the Maitre d’ himself would present The Whole- roasted lamb shoulder with pomegranate and chickpeas.
I will have to admit I was surprised when the shoulder arrived – not just because I hadn’t gotten any of the other mezze I desired, but because I figured they’d scale the course down for one person – they did not. Perched atop a bed of Egyptian rice and sweet, savory, and crunchy chickpeas the shoulder was enormous, flawlessly executed, and decadent. Crisp skin - salty and savory - yielded a thick layer of fat and unctuous supple flesh that literally melted in the mouth. Eating slowly and pairing the protein with the saffron perfumed rice and chunky chick peas there was not a doubt in my mind that the lamb trumped Amada’s pig in terms of skilled preparation and flavor. Setting aside fat and bone and focusing on protein over carbs I actually managed the whole shoulder with ease – seemingly to the amusement and shock of the diners around me and the maitre d’. So shocking, apparently, was my accomplishment that the Maitre D’ brought Chef Solomonov over to my table to introduce us and after a long chat about the Philadelphia dining scene, his former employer Marc Vetri, and the film “The Great Outdoors” he said “You know, you’re the first person to ever eat that solo – with the blond hair and an appetite like that you’re like a Viking!”
Viking tendencies aside I declined to have the fat, bone, and small amount of rice packed up to go – I instead sat and enjoyed a cup of dark and nutty coffee while I awaited my dessert, the house special Halvah mousse with blueberry puree and chickpea praline. Similar in texture to the sublime budino at Osteria the day before the “parfait” was served in a glass with layers of texturally complex custardy mousse intermingling with New Jersey blueberry puree and topped with a chickpea praline that bordered between corn-nut and pop rocks in texture; a fantastic dessert with plenty of character and balance.
When the meal was completed, after a second cup of coffee, I was presented with the bill and plenty of thanks from the staff. Full, but not uncomfortably so I settled the tab and made my way to the street for a pleasant walk back to the Italian Village – my first night out “late” on a weekend I was treated to Philly’s impressively lively “scene” as I wandered. Impressed by the food I tried but overall somewhat disappointed that my tastes were not accounted for I filled out my opentable survey (as I always do) on my return to Ohio and for the first time in my life actually received a response from the restaurant – Jilian stating that she was sorry to hear that things hadn’t been perfect – that there had apparently been a miscommunication – or more specifically “Because you were our first brave guest to order the Mesibah dinner for one, I know our staff was trying to ensure that you were able to enjoy as many items as possible without becoming overwhelmed with the quantity of food (especially with the signature lamb shoulder as the final savory course.)"
Overall a good meal that could have been great – from now on I guess I’ll have to make restaurants aware they are dealing with a Viking. If I ever have the chance to go back I’m ordering the tasting and supplementing substantially - $48 for five courses of Solomonov quality food is a steal…or perhaps a pillage or plunder?