Mrs. Refined Sugar and I have been friends for a long time, back when we were both unrefined. We shared some strange food adventures in our younger years, the details of which I will spare you, except to divulge that we chewed paper and analyzed various pulp qualities. Besides a few odd adolescent experiments, we ate very well between our two houses and experimented with our own cooking once we could be trusted. Now grown and living a few cities apart, we support each other’s independent culinary explorations, her’s being the highly successful ice cream blog, 365 Scoops. It was a true feat to steal away Mrs. Refined Sugar from her eight month old baby, Sugar in the Raw, to meet for a day in one of East Coast’s most advanced gluten-free foodie cities, Philadelphia. For weeks we looked forward to indulging our now more sophisticated palettes with some quality grub. Between Refined Sugar’s vegetarian habits and my gluten-free demands, we narrowed down our options to a few recommended locations. I knew we were on the same page when we arrived wearing the same black, elastic waistband leggings: make room for food!
We started our eating tour with a light lunch at HipCityVeg, a locally sourced, environmentally friendly, vegan sandwich and salad joint. This fast-food spot has just one location off of Rittenhouse Square. I imagine the concept would make for a highly successful chain. The menu airs on the healthy side with a few treats mixed in, such as sweet potato fries and a few desserts. There are a number of gluten-free options and the staff is extremely versed in parsing ingredient lists to help navigate allergen-free choices, refreshing for a fast-food establishment. Mrs. Refined Sugar and I both ordered the Bistro Bella sandwich, mine deconstructed on a pile of arugula instead of the bun. The salad contained herb glazed portobello mushrooms, olive tapenade, tomato, artichokes and red onion, a unique alternative to my tired salad repertoire. With fuel to burn we were off to shop, what else?
Sweet Freedom Bakery
By late afternoon we were ready to recharge at Sweet Freedom, Philadelphia’s only bakery free of (long inhale) gluten, dairy, egg, corn, soy, peanut, casein and refined sugar (no offense to my companion of the same name). As we entered this sweet treat mecca, I checked my gluten-guard at the door and surveyed the cupcakes, donuts, cookies, brownies, oat crumbles, cake balls, etc. Mrs. Refined Sugar left the ordering to me, a weighty task. The friendly associate recommended the strawberry shortcake cupcake, yes please, and I couldn’t resist the chocolate salted caramel cupcake. Our fruity pick was a creative combination of classic shortcake and trendy cupcake. The dense, vanilla flavored, scone-like cake was layered with dairy-free cream, fresh strawberries and just a touch of strawberry syrup. This not-too-sweet delectable paired nicely with the rich and chocolaty cupcake, oozing gooey caramel from its center. A fudgy chocolate frosting was sprinkled with flakes of sea salt, rounding out a most stimulating feast for the taste buds.
Before leaving we felt it our duty to sample the newly released bread loaf that Sweet Freedom has worked diligently to perfect. Toasted with a smear of apricot jam, it was quite satiating. However standing alone, the slice was slightly too dense and bitter in flavor for my taste. Not bad for a first run, but perhaps in need of some more fine tuning.
After a quick visit to The Barnes Foundation’s world-famous art collection in its new Philadelphia home, we rushed to make our dinner reservation. The final stop of the day was Zahav, a gem tucked away on quiet St. James Place. Chef and owner Michael Solomonov was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of 19 he returned to Israel, fell into the culinary world, and later returned to work in the restaurant industry in Philadelphia. The death of his brother in the Israeli army clarified for Solomonov his mission to share the flavors of his native land, and Zahav was born.
Stepping into the airy, limestone laden dining space and peering into the open kitchen, Mrs. Refined Sugar and I both had the same first impression: We’ve just entered Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook. Yet Zahav offers its own interpretation of the the little country’s big flavors. We were greeted by an enthusiastic server who was unperturbed by our many dietary restrictions. She grabbed a pen and swiftly lined through items to avoid on each of our paper menus. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Refined Sugar’s vegetarian sheet was more marked up than mine. The server then explained the restaurant’s sharing style and pointed out the tempting $39 Tayim tasting menu, which offers a generous sampling from each section of the menu. We weighed our should’s and could’s over a Lemonnana cocktail and Israeli Salad Martini and decided the day called for an indulgent finale.
Our tasting menu began with half a dozen fresh salatim (salads), hummus, freshly baked pita for Mrs. Refined Sugar, and cucumber slices for me. Small bowls filled with beets in house-made tahini, pureed eggplant, sliced fennel, spicy green beans, chopped cucumber, and creamy hummus were all gluten-free. I avoided the tabouli salad, a cracked wheat based dish. The first course alone would have left us buzzing about Zahav. But there was much more to come.
Aware of our limited time, our server kept the food rolling with a second set of dishes: the watermelon salad with marinated cobia, israeli olives and smoked honey; the roasted zucchini with bulgarian feta, hazelnuts and zucchini babaganoush; and the heirloom tomato salad with matbucha (roasted tomatoes) and house-made ricotta. We ferociously tasted each plate’s complex combination of flavors and textures. A symphony of “mmmm’s” hummed from our table.
The Al Ha’esh (grilled over coals) course followed with spiced eggplant, prepared with harissa, black lentils and garlic tehina, and the highly recommended hanger steak with babaganoush, mushrooms and spicy schoug. (I channeled Mr. Green Bean for my one meaty choice.) Our server graciously treated us to the trumpet mushrooms, which we had been eyeing, served with shakshuka, fried egg and legumes. A dozen or so dishes now crowded our little table, and we attempted to take it all in (figuratively of course, we couldn’t possibly clean our plates).
With our elastic waistbands fully extended we made room for just a few bites of dessert. I ordered the tahini semifreddo, a rich and creamy mousse with hints of nutty sesame flavor, accented by sweet cherry compote topping. I melted over a couple of spoonfuls and still regret not taking the rest home.
Overall, elaborate preparations and beautiful presentations of fresh produce, hearty grains and quality proteins resulted in an impressive representation of the melting pot of Israeli cuisine. I am critical of the kitchen’s heavy hand with salt and weak pour for expensive cocktails, small crimes for an otherwise first-rate meal.
Although the establishments we visited offered some pretty delicious items, credit must be given as well to Mrs. Refined Sugar. Some dining partners just make food taste a little sweeter and a little richer. Before we parted ways, we made plans for a reprise rendezvous in The City of Brotherly (and gluten-free) Love.