Philadelphia’s Jewish Dining Scene Steps Into the Big Leagues
From bagel bakeries and hummus joints to upscale kosher eateries, new restaurants have changed the city’s culinary profile
Inside a low-slung brick building on an otherwise nondescript stretch of office parks in the Philadelphia suburb of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, something unexpected is cooking. A small team of bakers is churning out kettle-boiled bagels, coconut macaroons, and buttery Danish pastries filled with kirsch-soaked cherries. Another baker dusts his hands with flour before punching down a bowl of swelling bread dough and transforming it into a tray of plump, freeform boules.
Since the bakery opened earlier this month, this scene has played out almost daily at Montgomery Bagels and Bakery, which sells its bread and pastries to nearby restaurants and markets and has a pint-size retail shop. At first, it may not seem so remarkable—Philadelphia has plenty of artisan bakeries, after all. But one thing sets Montgomery apart from the pack: It’s kosher.
As the city with the country’s fourth-largest Jewish population, Philadelphia has every reason to have a robust Jewish culinary scene. And indeed, there are a few old-time staples, like the Famous 4th Street Delicatessen and Hymies Deli, which have kept residents awash in pastrami and pickles over the years.
But historically, the options have been sparse and uninspiring, with Philly serving, culinary speaking, as a turnpike rest stop en route to New York City. “When I moved here 16 years ago, I was disappointed by the level of Jewish cookery,” said Craig LaBan, longtime restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The deli scene was very specific and mostly pretty mediocre.”
That was then. Today, thanks to a new crop of sophisticated restaurants and food shops, like Montgomery Bagels and Bakery, Philadelphia is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic Jewish dining cities on the East Coast.
For now, Philadelphia’s Jewish restaurant boom rests mainly on the shoulders of two culinary entities with rather opposite missions. On one side is CookNSolo, the restaurant group headed by Michael Solomonov and his business partner, Steven Cook. Solomonov is a passionate chef who draws significant inspiration from global Jewish cuisines. At his three Philadelphia restaurants—Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, and Federal Donuts—the focus is food, first and foremost. None of his restaurants are kosher and, like many chefs, he views kashrut as a potential hindrance to flavor and creativity. Yet his cooking often tastes undeniably “Jewish,” incorporating flavors from the global Jewish food canon. Even at Federal Donuts, a fried chicken and doughnut joint with no explicit Jewish influence, diners can order their wings dusted with shabazzi (a Middle Eastern mix of green chile, sumac, and dried fennel) or brushed with a dill pickle glaze.
On the other side is Six Points Restaurant Group, owned by David Magerman, a former hedge-fund honcho turned Jewish philanthropist who has adopted Main Line Philadelphia’s Modern Orthodox community as a passion project. For Magerman, who runs several upscale kosher establishments including the new Montgomery Bagels and Bakery, Citron + Rose, a catering company, and a soon-to-open bistro called The Dairy—good kosher food is means to a larger community-building agenda. Yet despite being suburban Philadelphia’s primary kosher restaurateur, Magerman admittedly does not care all that much about fine cuisine. “My family and I are not foodies,” he said. “We are really salad and hoagie kind of people.”
You might call it the tale of two Jewish Phillys, with two different visions and two different plans for growth. But for food enthusiasts, it adds up to one exciting time to eat in the City of Brotherly Love.
The unrivaled current champion of Philadelphia’s Jewish food scene is Zahav, the modern Israeli restaurant opened by CookNSolo in 2008 in the Society Hill neighborhood. With its Israeli-inspired menu of fried cauliflower and labne, lamb merguez with squash tehina and harissa, and chocolate babka with Turkish coffee ice cream, Zahav has arguably done more than any restaurant in America to bring attention to innovative Middle Eastern cuisine.
Solomonov has a prestigious James Beard Award under his belt. Cook, meanwhile, is a fellow chef (and rabbi’s son, not coincidentally) and successful restaurateur who has been at the helm of Philadelphia’s larger food renaissance for the last decade. They could easily take their act on the road but they prefer to keep things local. “We get asked all the time to open new Zahav locations in other cities, but we have so far resisted,” Cook explained. “We enjoy being in Philly. What we have here is special.”
Instead, Solomonov and Cook plan to add two new Jewish restaurants to Philadelphia’s roster later this spring. The first, Dizengoff, will be a casual hummus spot located in Center City. Geared toward lunch-goers, it will be modeled after a no-frills Israeli “hummusiya.” The small but well-curated menu will include Solomonov’s creamy chickpea spread paired with a rotating selection of seasonal toppings like favas, mint, and matbucha, or spiced beef, pine nuts, pickled cauliflower leaves, and mango amba. “There will be great hummus along with some traditional garnishes and some new-wave ones,” Cook said. “That plus fresh-baked pita and a few vegetable accouterments”—including, he said, the fiery hunks of raw onion commonly used to scoop up hummus in Israel.
Their second restaurant, Abe Fisher, will be located just a couple storefronts down from Dizengoff. The menu will be fuller and more dinner-driven, featuring dishes based on Jewish Diaspora cuisine. There Solomonov will explore Eastern European food traditions in a way he has not at Zahav—serving dishes like smoked potato knishes, Montreal-style smoked short ribs, and a borscht tartare that pairs beets, salmon caviar, and sour cream and onion potato chips. “I describe Zahav as Jewish food inspired by Israel. Abe Fisher is the opposite—it leans toward everything but that,” Cook explained.
Solomonov described the two restaurants succinctly as “the culmination of the CookNSolo vision.”
Eight miles west of Zahav, across the Schuylkill River in the suburbs of King of Prussia and Merion Station, a parallel kosher restaurant scene is emerging simultaneously, spearheaded by Magerman’s Six Points Restaurant Group.
Citron + Rose, his modern kosher restaurant that opened in 2012, has quickly established itself as one of the best in the country. (Solomonov and Cook were instrumental in the visioning and opening stages of Citron + Rose but are no longer involved.) The seasonally driven menu incorporates many old-world Jewish touches, like a starter of pastrami with mustard rye crisps, black bass served with spaghetti squash kugel, and a rib eye that comes with pickled beet relish and whipped beef schmaltz. The restaurant sources local, high-quality ingredients, including meat from the sustainable kosher company Grow and Behold. And the airy, elegantly appointed dining room blows away most kosher restaurants on the ambiance scale.
Later this year, Magerman plans to open a kosher bistro called The Dairy. Serving artisan sandwiches and salads, brick-oven pizza, and bagels from Montgomery Bagel and Bakery, his plan is to serve the same quality of food as Citron + Rose, but in a more casual environment.
Jewish food, of course, is enjoying something of a cultural moment these days. And Philadelphia is just one of many cities witnessing the opening of nouveau delicatessens and appetizing shops, as well as other Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Middle Eastern-inspired eateries. But the majority of these innovative establishments are not kosher, which means religious Jews, ironically, get excluded. Not so with Magerman’s businesses.
As someone who only took on religious observance himself over the past decade, Magerman felt it was critical that Merion Station have quality kosher restaurants. “Not growing up keeping kosher, I never realized that observant Jews were sometimes embarrassed to bring colleagues and non-Jewish friends to kosher restaurants because of the quality issues,” he said. So, he set about creating a place that fit his standards, hiring a non-Jewish executive chef, Karen Nicolas, who had experience cooking under Tom Colicchio at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and at Todd Gray’s Washington, D.C., restaurant Equinox, among other acclaimed kitchens.
Magerman said that many of Citron + Rose’s regulars are non-Jews or non-kosher-keepers who first ate there with religious friends. “If we have half kippot-wearers in the room, and half not, we feel like we must be doing something right,” he joked. Still, he recognizes the link between cuisine and community.
Merion Station’s Orthodox population is currently expanding, but it will only grow so far without the right infrastructure and amenities. For Magerman, that means quality synagogues, robust day schools (another cause he has heavily funded), and a diverse range of great restaurants. “As I started looking to grow the community and attract more young families, I realized how important it is to give people places to eat that they can feel excited about.”
Outside of the CookNSolo and Six Points Restaurant Group spheres, a handful of other Jewish eateries have made their mark in recent years. Take Schlesinger’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Center City, which opened in 2010 and serves (non-kosher) from-scratch classics like beef kreplach soup and poppy-seed hamantaschen. A few blocks away is Spread Bagelry, which has baked Montreal-style wood-fired bagels since 2011. And last year, The Avenue Delicatessen, which fuses Italian and Jewish food (think reuben arancini and Italian wedding soup with matzo balls) opened to acclaim in nearby Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, LaBan said that, much in thanks to influential chefs like Solomonov, Jewish cuisine is making its way into mainstream Philadelphia restaurants. “You are seeing a lot of restaurants using pastrami rubs outside of the traditional context, or making everything-bagel-spiced foods,” he said. “It is completely non-denominational. They are simply taking old Jewish flavors and borrowing them for a broader fusion palate.”
Taken together, there have never been more or better options to “eat Jewish”—both kosher and not—in Philadelphia than right now. And with any luck, it is just the beginning. “Nouveau Jewish cuisine has not nearly hit its peak,” LaBan said. “With such creative forces around, it is only going to grow.”
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