Zahav was named Philadelphia Magazine's best restaurant for 2009. I was a little apprehensive to try it, really having no idea what Israeli food would be like, but I like hummus and heard it was the best thing in town, so why not. Plus they post their menu online with explanations of what the dishes are, which wins major points in my book because I like knowing what I am getting myself into - both in food and in price.
First good sign: I've discovered my new favorite drink in Philadelphia: the Jerusalem Cocktail at Zahav: a tasty delight that makes you want to drink 7 of them, although I think that probably wouldn't be a good idea. I had one. It's a mix of sparkling wine and sabra fruit, which I'd never heard before. To me it was fruit-punchy, but not like Hi-C fruit punch, more like $9.50 high-class fruit punch, with bubbles. I also tried the Adom Rimon, your average pomegranate martini. Bradd had the sweet Lemonnana (which you can get by the glass or pitcher and is sort of like a fancy Mike's Hard Lemonade), but liked the Goldstar Lager better, an Israeli beer.
Second good sign: I love restaurants with small plates so you can try more things. We'd read and been told over and over that you can't go to Zahav without trying the hummus, so to start we got deliciously warm and garlicy Turkish Hummus along with their Salatim, a group of 8 salads. I meant to take a picture of the presentation - it comes out in this two tiered stand with 8 little plates/servings on it - we had spaghetti squash, parsley salad, eggplant, cucumber, carrot, okra, and some others. I couldn't tell you what each of these ingredients was mixed with to create the "salads" but they were all great. I liked the spaghetti squash, parsley and cucumber the best. You don't get to pick them though - its a daily selection.
We split 5 small plates, which was plenty of food. They recommend 2-3 per person. Fried Kibbe with Tahini (fried balls of ground lamb meat - like the pic in the wikipedia entry) were UNREAL. You only get two, but I could have eaten a plateful of them. Second favorite was the Fried Cauliflower. Note: if my mother or brother ever finds out I ate cauliflower at a restaurant I will never hear the end of it, so don't tell them. For 20 years I threatened war if they made me eat it, and to this day won't touch it, but Bradd wanted and man was it good!!! The mint, garlic, chive and dill sauce you dip it in makes it even more wonderful.
Monsieur Merguez was also excellent - its a housemade sausage with cous cous and some red sauce over it. Slightly spicy, very tender and extremely tasty. I had merguez once before at Novita Bistro and wasn't totally impressed, but now I feel like my first experience was way over-cooked because Zahav's was awesome.
Bradd loves cheese. You've probably figured that out by now. So naturally he loved the Crispy Haloumi, a fried sheep's milk cheese. He thought it was incredible, but personally, the cheese was too hard for me. I prefer concession stand mozzerella stick-style fried cheese but I suppose that's not really how Philly Mag top restaurants roll.
Lastly, the Chicken Freekah was fun to say, but not that great. It wasn't bad but paled in comparison to the rest.
Ambiance at Zahav is great - cool view out two whole sides of windows, cozy half-open kitchen feeling, and very friendly staff. I am always amazed at restaurants that send random people to your table to deliver food/drinks, instead of just your waitress. It must keep places that serve tapas-like food more efficient. I would definitely go back just to sit at the bar with Jerusalem Cocktail and one/two small plates, or grab a table with friends and go to town on more of the amazing-sounding hummus, salads and menu items. Make a reservation though - calling day-of on a Saturday, we could only get in at 5:45, but it was worth skipping lunch for the early dinner. Without several $9-$10 drinks, the price isn't bad either. It depends on how much you eat... and of course how many Jerusalem Cocktails you fancy that night.