Sunday, February 15, 2009

Restaurant Week Retrospective

Residents of Philadelphia eagerly await “Restaurant Week” each season, where participating restaurants offer a minimum of 3 courses for only $35. With over 100 restaurants to choose from, a week just is not enough time and fortunately, many restaurants decided to participate in a de facto “Restaurant 2-Week”, extending their special menu for another week. Having heard about a new, amazing modern-Israeli restaurant, Zahav, I knew restaurant week would be an excellent time to check it out. But being new to Philadelphia this year, I also wanted to try somewhere more established. One of my friend’s favorite restaurants in the city is Alma de Cuba and she suggested I go there since it is on the expensive side, and restaurant week provides a cost-effective prix fixe. Sounded like a perfect plan to me!

I went to Alma de Cuba first, where the special menu offered a limited 3-course meal: 1 appetizer (out of 3), 1 entrée (out of 3), and 1 dessert (out of 2). I chose the Hamachi ceviche for my first course, which was a generous portion of fresh, sliced yellow tail plated with red onion, lime juice, and a tangy sesame-soy vinaigrette. For my main course I had the delicious house specialty Vaca Frita which means “Fried Cow.” The twice-cooked crispy skirt steak is a Cuban specialty that came with rice, black beans, and delectable tomato-based sauce with an avocado crème. The dish was perfectly prepared and very filling! For dessert, not being a tapioca fan, I chose a spiced-sponge cake with dolce de leche, with a crème anglaise frosting and candied pecans. The cake was moist and flavorful and the pecans added a nice “crunch” to the dessert. My friend ordered the same exact 3 items, since the others had zero appeal to either of us, so I unfortunately can only comment on these dishes. But despite the limited menu choices, Alma de Cuba offered some of its staple dishes in full-sized portions, and all were delicious. The décor of the restaurant was fairly minimal, low lighting with a white-red color scheme, lending to a relaxed but upscale setting. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the food and the experience at Alma de Cuba.

Zahav was completely booked for the first “round” of restaurant week, but the hostess called me back to let me know that they were going to extend the special menu—I was so excited! Zahav is a modern-Israeli restaurant on St. James place, which is near 2nd and Chestnut. While farther than I would normally venture for dinner—although still not terribly far—it was 100 percent worth it. Zahav offered an amazing special menu: hummus and laffa and a collection of 8 salads for the table, a choice of 2 appetizers (out of 10), choice of 1 entrée (out of 6), and a choice of 1 dessert (out of 3). The menu was very extensive and I went with an adventurous friend who also wanted to try everything, so we had the waiter advise us on what to order. The waiter was extremely helpful and chose the perfect menu for us…

We started with the hummus, which I can honestly say was the best hummus I have ever eaten, and it came with laffa, which is similar to pita bread and cooked in a wood-burning oven. The selection of eight salads included delicious baba ghanoush, seasoned carrots, tabouleh, and spiced chickpeas. For the second course, I loved the fried cauliflower and the Maluach (a crispy, twice-baked flatbread that's layered with French butter), which was accompanied with a fresh, chunky tomato sauce. The crispy haloumi--a cypriotic sheep’s milk cheese--was served with pine nuts and a date puree and was my friend’s favorite dish. For the third course, we chose the house made Merguez, which is a lamb skewer that came with traditional cous cous and a spicy sauce, and the Sabra, which was a perfectly seasoned and cooked chicken, sliced and served with onions and Israeli cous cous, which we learned is made with larger grains than standard cous cous.

The waiter suggested that my friend and I both order the Cashew Baklava for dessert, because it is that good. We should have listened. The lemon-poppy upside down cake, with a cucumber sorbet was wonderful and refreshing, but the baklava was out of this world. The baklava was not too salty and not too sweet, full of flavor and paired with a delicious white chocolate ice cream and a berry compote.

Every dish at Zahav was prepared with the freshest ingredients, with dynamic combinations and flavors. The restaurant is spacious and has a lovely, relaxed décor. I would recommend this place to anyone looking to go out with good group of friends, so that you can try as many dishes as you can! While Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food is not generally my favorite, Zahav was one of the best dining experiences—from start to finish—that I have ever had in Philadelphia, and I plan to go back as soon as possible.

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