Michael Solomonov, the Israeli-born, award-winning chef and co-owner of several popular Philadelphia restaurants serving modern Jewish and Israeli cuisine, came to the JCC of San Francisco last month to celebrate the release of his book “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.”
San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer Michael Bauer (incognito with a hat and sunglasses) interviewed Solomonov at the sold-out event. He opened by recalling his visit to Solomonov’s Zahav eatery as a critic for a James Beard event, knowing nothing about the restaurant, the chef or Israeli food.
“I was totally captivated by what he was doing, and it wasn’t just the flavors, which were great, but I felt something in the food that I feel very rarely,” said Bauer. “People talk about putting love into their cooking — that phrase is used too much, but it was something I really did feel, that you were giving us a part of yourself.”
Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook, who co-own Zahav and four other restaurants, are on their way to running a mini empire in the City of Brotherly Love.
Solomonov’s journey to cooking Israeli food has an emotional family connection. He was working in an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia in 2003 when his younger brother David was killed by a sniper on the Lebanese border in his last few days of serving in the Israel Defense Forces. While Solomonov didn’t fully realize it at the time, his venture into experimenting with Israeli cuisine would become a way to stay close to his brother’s memory.
“It’s awesome to cook Israeli food and to represent Israel and make your family proud and be part of this heritage,” he said at the JCC. “I would have sucked in the military. I get to talk about Israel and its people, and I don’t have to talk about politics, thank God, though people still try.”
His years as a drug addict are also part of his story; that difficult period made it into the book and his talk. Solomonov, who is in recovery now, gave credit to his wife and Cook for staging an intervention to get him into rehab. “Having people in your corner who love you is key.”
Solomonov ended his talk with a hummus-making demo with plenty on hand for everyone to sample afterward, thanks to a hand from one of his former sous chefs who now works in San Francisco.
Earlier, explaining why he doesn’t serve lamb with tzatziki or yogurt sauce, Solomonov said, “A lot of people don’t understand the importance of puréed sesame on everything, but they should, it’s in Chapter 1.” In the book, he calls tehina “the mother sauce.”
The cookbook is a beauty and practically encyclopedic in scope. Both the restaurant and book are kosher-style.
SPICE EXPLORATION: Shuli and Ronit Madmone, the couple behind Whole Spice (www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-whole-spice), the Bay Area-based spice company that has a shop in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market and sells online and through many retailers, are living in their native Israel this year and working on a Whole Spice cookbook. Ronit writes that they are in Ra’anana, where their three sons can walk to school. While team members run the business here, she plans to visit farmers and chefs in Israel to get tips on cooking with spices for the cookbook. For more, visit the couple’s crowdfunding page at www.barnraiser.us/projects/whole-spice-cookbook. All donations get spices in return, of course.
HANUKKAH MENUS: Bluestem Brasserie, located on San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Lane, is offering a few Hanukkah items for one night only, on Dec. 10. A celery root and potato latke served with smoked trout, horseradish crème fraîche and pickled beets will be on offer along with brisket with winter vegetables and matzah ball soup from executive chef Jeff Banker … 1313 Main in Napa will offer guests the chance to play dreidel throughout December as part of its “Winter in Wine Country” tasting menu event. A latke with crème fraîche, chive and smoked salmon roe will be on the bar-snacks menu from executive chef Adam Ross … Alta CA in San Francisco has scheduled “Holla! Brunch Pop-Up” on Dec. 5-6 and Dec. 12-13 with Jewish-inspired offerings on the menu. Many of the dishes — such as smoked soft eggs with sherry and holla dipping sticks, and choc-o-holla-ic French toast — feature “holla,” which is to say, challah. For details, visit www.altaca.co/#altalatenight … After hosting Jewish-Mexican Passover dinners for the past three years, Comal is adding “Oaxanukkah” dinners on Dec. 7 and 8. Executive chef Matt Gandin has created a multi-course family-style menu in his signature Mexican style that riffs on classic Hanukkah dishes; options include potato-jalapeño latkes and tequila-cured salmon. Seating is limited and the $70 cost doesn’t include beverages. For details, visit www.comalberkeley.com … For the fourth year in a row, Grand Lake Kitchen in Oakland will be offering Hanukkah favorites alongside its regular menu. The chefs were in the planning process as of deadline, so for details, visit www.grandlakekitchen.com or call (510) 922-9582 … From Dec. 8-13, the Canela Bistro and Wine Bar in San Francisco is offering a pre-fixe Hanukkah menu that includes a dreidel. Spanish-influenced dishes include spinach and leek potato pancakes with smoked salmon, piquillo glazed brisket with noodle kugel, and honey-dipped bunuelos with ground walnuts and candied orange peel. For more information, call (415) 552-3000.
Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is www.theorganicepicure.com.