Zahav = “Gold” (In More Ways Than One)

Restaurant Week can be polarizing. Some love it, some hate it. This blog article has a nice pro/con list: advantages generally include fantastic value and prestigious restaurant participants, while disadvantages may range from neglectful wait staffs to smaller portions to limited selection choice.

Zahav erased any doubts from my mind about Restaurant Week. It was our first stop for Restaurant Week Spring 2012, and what a way it was to start off this biannual event! We chose dishes from the full menu, received the restaurant’s standard portion sizes, and experienced some of the most attentive service I’ve ever encountered.

The meal began with the Israeli version of bread and butter: laffa and hummus. The house-baked, still-warm-to-the-touch laffa was served alongside a large dish of well-oiled, well-seasoned hummus-tehina. Savory, pleasantly warm, and jazzed up with their interpretation of salt (more details below), the bread derivative was a nice departure from the usual American starter.

Soon to follow was the Salatim, a daily selection of salads. We were able to sample four different varieties: marinated carrots, beet salad, cucumbers, and a pickled carrot and cauliflower floret medley. I was most impressed with the purplish-red beet salad, which was surprisingly creamy and incredibly addictive. If I wasn’t excitedly anticipating the rest of our meal, I would have certainly asked for seconds.

The condiments themselves, as seen in the three-partitions dish, were utterly unique and utterly delicious. In the picture (from foreground to background), we had za’atar (a classic Israeli herb and spice mixture with sumac and sesame), harissa (a piquant, earthy chili sauce with garlic and red wine vinegar), and schug (a tongue-tingling cilantro-serrano chile paste with cilantro, parsley, olive oil, and sea salt). The waiter described it to us as the ethnic varieties of salt, pepper, and hot sauce, respectively. We had fun sampling the different condiments (the schug definitely has a kick to it) and seasoning our pieces of laffa.

First to arrive for the Mezze (Small Plates) course was the House Smoked Sable (Challah, fried egg, poppy). The light, flaky fish was well seasoned, although I wish there was more on the plate. The rich golden egg yolk that spilled out when we cut into the toast was a pleasant surprise; how they achieved that, I have no idea! But of all the components present on the plate, I thought the toast was the star of the dish: I couldn’t get enough of that crisp buttery bread. For lack of a better comparison, I likened it to a glorified, haute cuisine Filet-o-Fish (I mean that in the best way possible!). Jessica found it really good and Luke was pleased as well.

Fried Sweetbreads (Chickpeas, green chiles, garlic) were next up. These are not flour-based breads as you might think, but rather the thymus or pancreas of a calf (can be that of a pig or lamb as well). As far as its etymology, “sweet” is likely used because the thymus is sweet and rich tasting (as opposed to savory tasting muscle flesh), while “bread” comes from either the Old English brede (“roasted meat”) or brǣd (“flesh” or “meat”). Luke and I were thrilled to get a dish not usually offered in restaurants. He found it “very tender” and “not chewy, as you might expect. Also, the chickpeas popped in your mouth and the crust and salt were great.” For me, the dish was so airy, it was practically non-existent: all I tasted was the seasoning. I wished there was more substance, but I suppose the sweetbread’s lightness is what makes it such a delicacy. Still good to try if you’ve never had sweetbreads before.

Our appetizer round finished with the Jerusalem Kugel (Brisket, fideos, cherries). The vermicelli noodles and other ingredients were baked in a dish before serving. The flavors of the plate reminded me of delicious upscale Chinese food. I didn’t mind the compactness of the mound; I liked the crispy crust it developed and the way it contrasted the soft interior. The “well known and even balanced flavor” in Luke’s words made Jessica consider the dish good, but nothing incredible.

While all three dishes were tasty, we were all split on our favorite Mezze plate. I enjoyed the kugel, Luke favored the sweetbreads, and Jessica adored the sable.

It was time to begin the Al Ha’esh (Grilled Over Coals) course! The bowl of Chicken Shishlik (Figs, almonds, carrots, pumpkin-saffron rice pilaf) that arrived first had us instantly clamoring for more. So tender, so juicy… that was some utterly amazing, absolutely mouthwatering thigh dark meat. The figs added a nice sweetness as well, giving the dish an extra-special touch. Both Luke and Jessica thought it was excellent; Luke in particular loved the “earthy and delicate tones from the figs, carrots, and pumpkin, accentuated by the roasted almonds.”

You could best liken Kofte (Ground beef and lamb, cumin, peppers, carrots) to an Israeli variation of the Italian meatball. I enjoyed the aromatic, flavorful combination of beef and lamb, which was perked up with a welcome touch of spiciness. The Kofte lied on a warm bed of savory red pepper salad; I liked the subtle sweetness that the sautéed peppers contributed. Jessica liked the dish in general, but thought it was salty. In slight contrast, Luke actually found the salad more “tart” and thought “the salt wasn’t overbearing.”

The Duck Kebab (Ground duck, foie gras and pistachios, saffron) closed our Al Ha’esh round. Luke found that as soon as he started eating it, he could tell that Zahav had transformed “just plain ground duck into something special.” While we didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm as Luke, Jessica and I still thought it was quite good.

It seems poultry was on our minds at this meal: Luke was a proponent of the “really good duck,” while Jessica and I loved the oh-so-moist chicken.

At last, dessert! The Milk Chocolate Baklava (Peanuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin ice cream) sounded like a classic we knew we had to try. I had imagined a plate filled with the traditional lofty triangles of flaky phyllo layered with a chopped nuts filling, but was rather surprised to see what came to the table. The ice cream needed a stronger pumpkin flavor in my opinion, but the dish overall was still good. The “little round logs” were “unexpected” for Luke. No matter: it was “sweet and delicious” and he “loved the honey.” Although Jessica thought a “bigger portion would have been better,” she still thought it had a good flavor combo.

The Kataifi (Valrhona chocolate, labaneh ice cream, mango) was our meal’s “dessert kugel” (at least in my mind). The yogurt had a strong, overbearing tang, but the mango helped cut through the yogurt and the too-dense dark chocolate mousse (it’s mousse: it should be light, not heavy! The darkness of the chocolate weighed it down). There was “too much going on in the dish” for Jessica and she didn’t love the combination of yogurt and chocolate. Luke opined that the yogurt, although “overpowering”, was “refreshing for the first few bites”; what soured his opinion was the moment he hit the chocolate. Its darkness and denseness “grounded” the dish. He wished that the “delicate bird’s nest” had just been “a flaky nest without the chocolate.”

What truly knocked our socks off was the Caramel Semifreddo (Pistachio cookie, dulce de leche, cherries). I thought the cookie topping (which Luke found hard to break initially) and incredibly buttery crust were stellar. Enamored with the flavorful fruit sauce, Jessica wanted to “lick the plate clean.” The “delicious” dessert was “smooth and creamy, with an authentic vanilla flavor” to Luke (I agree!). It was a unanimous decision that the Semifreddo was the best dessert of the meal.

Zahav converted me into a true fan after this wonderful experience, Restaurant Week or otherwise. Note that Zahav only offers lunch during Restaurant Week, so if you want the fantastic $20 deal, go then!

A solid 4.75 stars from the PFF: the best meal we’ve had thus far.

Zahav ★★★★3/4
237 Saint James Place
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