Monday, December 26, 2011

An Even Jewisher Christmas at Zahav!

As a special holiday splurge, I decided to treat myself to "An Even Jewisher Christmas" at Zahav -- a special event featuring a surprise film and Michael Solomonov's take on Chinese food.

As soon as I walked in the door (30 minutes early as requested), I was greeted by servers dressed up in kitschy red t-shirts, and by the smell of, well, burning popcorn. With the staff working furiously to re-set the old school popcorn popper, a number of us waited patiently (ever so patiently) to be seated.

After 30 minutes of semi-starvation, I was taken to a table at the front of the house, right by the projector and the makeshift screen. Not a bad seat, if I do say so myself. Plus, they didn't make me sit with random strangers. Brownie points -- check.

As we all waited for the movie to start, servers brought out little brown paper bags of seasoned popcorn to tide us over until the main courses came out. (It would've been lovely to try one of several Chinese-themed cocktails, but I doubt my alcohol allergy would've agreed with me.)

The movie of the night turned out to be (drumroll, please) Big Trouble in Little China. Starring Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall in their early days, this was definitely not something I would've chosen for myself. That said, it was the perfect flick for this setting. Campy, kitschy, and all-around ridiculous. Brilliant pick.

To kick things off, servers brought out the shrimp salad -- which I considered to be a lighter version of the traditional walnut shrimp dish. Here, the shrimp was less battered, the sauce was less rich, and everything was placed nicely atop a crunchy (non-green) salad, which had a bit of acid that cut through the cream.

Next up was one of my favorite dishes of the night -- the Szechuan-style pork belly. While I could've done without the bitter greens and the useless carrots, the pork belly was perfect in all of its unctuousness. Sliced thin like bacon, I could've lived off this dish alone.

Considering that I normally don't eat much red meat, the veal dumplings were probably the heaviest items of the night. The skins on the dumplings were lovely and smooth though, which made up for the slight grittiness of the filling. The harissa oil added a bit of heat, which was balanced by the chill of the diced cucumber.

At this point, I was already starting to feel sated, yet I still had four more courses to go. I did what I could to power through, but I definitely realized that eating solo at some events is nearly impossible, especially if I actually want to enjoy what I'm taking into my body. Oh, the trials and tribulations of single-dom.

With sweetbreads being one of my favorite things to eat, I was sad that this dish didn't come out earlier, especially since my stomach was shrinking furiously. That said, I wasn't too pleased with the dish as a whole, so perhaps everything worked out for the best.

The exterior of the salt and pepper sweetbreads was definitely more breaded than usual, and the interior was quite mealy. I'm also (shockingly) not a fan of lo mein or water chestnuts, so I essentially picked off the protein and left the carbs and veggies untouched.

Like every meal I had growing up, which had to have at least one big dish of greens, Chinese broccoli arrived at the table, topped with shreds of smoked mackerel. Being used to having greens served au naturel, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the fish/veggie combination. Ultimately, I don't think the combination of textures worked very well.

Even with no appetite left, there was no way that I was leaving without finishing the entire plate of moo shu duck set before me. Not only did this dish look absolutely breathtaking, but the flavors and textures were more than spectacular.

While moo shu pork is fairly ubiquitous in the Chinese takeout world, moo shu duck is rare, if not non-existent. This preparation appears to have been a cross between moo shu pork and Peking duck, given that tortilla-like pancakes and white rice were brought out as accompaniments.

Although the meat was a bit salty, it was also tender, moist, and flavorful. In addition, red chilis and green onions added both heat and color. From the looks of it, I really shouldn't have been able to finish everything on the plate. That said, where there's a will, there's a way.

The way being that I barely touched the white chocolate cake at the end of the meal. As one friend indicated, that was pretty much sacrilege given my love of sugar. At the very least, I made it through the tiny scoop of mandarin orange sorbet. The rest of the cake was a bit too dense, and the berry sauce was a bit too sweet.

All in all, this was a delicious experience. The food was creative and flavorful, and the service was excellent. I couldn't believe how many times I had to fend off water and rice, but I certainly didn't find the attention excessive. Plus, I was greeted by Michael at the beginning and end of the meal, which was very considerate and certainly gracious.

Zahav continues to be one of my favorites, and special events like this that showcase Michael's culinary breadth are definitely not to be missed.

237 St. James Place
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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