Israel to Miami via Philadelphia

By | December 11, 2017
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Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Photo: Mike Persico)
Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Photo: Mike Persico)

It’s been a busy year for Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, the team behind a mini-empire of Philadelphia restaurants led by their modern Israeli flagship, Zahav.

Solomonov hosted a documentary film, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” released in March. In May, he received the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef” award. The medallion can go on a shelf next to the Beard Award the duo took home last year for the Zahav cookbook, while a brand new book, Federal Donuts: The (Partially) True Spectacular Story is out. They opened Rooster Soup Company, a diner that turns food waste from their other restaurants into their namesake soups, while contributing all its profits to services for vulnerable Philadelphia communities.

Oh, and somewhere in there, they managed to open not one, but two, restaurants in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, their first ventures outside of driving distance of Philadelphia.

The menus at both new spots are terse like a Hemingway sentence. Federal Donuts serves basically two things: donuts and fried chicken. Dizengoff, right next door, is modeled after the hummusiya stalls found throughout Israel, featuring hummus with a few different toppings paired with fresh pita bread, and maybe a salad or two. But there are few sub-$3 treats better than Federal’s donuts, and the crispy coating and juicy interior of their fried chicken is among the best in town. Dizengoff’s hummus may be the richest and creamiest you’ve ever tasted, delicious when scooped up with pita still warm from the wood-burning oven. What these places lack in variety, they make up in execution.

Philadelphia is home now, but both chefs have South Florida connections: Cook grew up in North Miami Beach, Solomonov went to culinary school in West Palm Beach. We spent some time talking as they were driving back to Philly from the NYC Dizengoff, shortly after returning from a trip to Israel.

Donut assortment (Photo: Federal Donuts)

What did you see on this visit to Israel that you may bring back home?
Mike: The spirit of dining in Israel is what we get to celebrate when we go over. What we’re trying to bring back is the hospitality, and the connectivity to different flavors. Some of these places are owned generation to generation and family to family, going back to pre-Independence in some cases. And then you’ve got the new chefs that have gone to Europe, or Asia, or the US, and they come back to Israel and instead of opening a European restaurant they are now realizing that the things they grew up with, from their grandmothers, or from the Shabbat table, or the holidays, that define who they were – not just in Israel, because it’s not just Israeli food, but from Morocco, or Libya, or Yemen – those are the foods that are really exciting, that help define their cooking.

Other than the Dizengoff in New York, this is your first foray outside of Philadelphia. Why Miami?
Steve: We started coming down about five years ago for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and started bit by bit learning what was happening in the food scene in Miami. It seemed like there was opportunity there, that Miami was hungry for new stuff. And also because it’s such an international city, there’s so many people who aren’t from there, that there’s a sort of open-arms welcome to people who come from somewhere else. We just felt like it was a good place for us to put a stake in the ground outside of our backyard.

Are Federal Donuts and Dizengoff designed to be “cookie cutter” operations or do you see those adapting to the local market?
Steve: When we opened Federal Donuts in 2011, it was really a side project. We were doing it purely for the fun of it, we didn’t go into it thinking it was going to be a multi-unit restaurant. By design we created a very simple menu offering for each of the two concepts to maximize our chances of executing it really well. That being said, it’s not that easy, there’s a lot of finesse and it’s not nearly as cookie cutter as maybe we’d want it to be. But we’ve done some interesting things in New York that we haven’t done in Philly, and as we get more comfortable and familiar with what our Miami customers want, I think we’ll definitely adapt.

These restaurants have this sort of laser focus to them. Can you tell me about the thinking behind that?
Steve: I do think there’s a connection between that and what Mike was talking about in Israel. This trip we ate only at hole-in-the-walls, street food stalls and family restaurants. These places have been doing the same thing for, in some cases, three generations. And you can’t do it better. Every item you add to a menu – by definition, it’s undeniable – you’re able to spend less time, less focus on every other item on your menu. So you have to find that sweet spot between giving the customer what they want and enough choice, and giving them so much choice that it ends up watering down everything that you’re trying to do. When you’re in Israel and you want the best falafel – plenty of places serve falafel, shawarma, kebabs, with a menu that’s as big as any American diner. But if you want great falafel, chances are you’re going to end up at a place that only does falafel.

I think that sometimes choice is an illusion. People think they want choice, but choice doesn’t matter if you’re not delivering something excellent. So we’re just trying to maximize the chances that you come in and order something and it’s great, and you’re like “It was really worth it for me to come here.”

Would you ever do another Zahav, or something like it, anywhere else?
Mike: We always say no. But every time I walk behind Soho House on South Beach, I think: a Zahav there would be great, you know? But there’s something really special about Zahav, it would be really difficult to reproduce that anywhere else and not have it dilute Philadelphia.

Now that you’ve got Federal and Dizengoff open in Miami, do you have anything else in store for South Florida?
Steve: We’ve got a lot of work to do on this one, but I also think that it’s going to be hard for us to be successful in South Florida without doing more down there. As we’ve grown in Philly we’ve gotten stronger. We have more people, we have more support, we have more relationships with everybody from vendors to customers. And that’s what it’s going to take for us to be successful. We opened in South Florida because we really wanted to make it our second home so to speak. So I think we’ll be opening more down there.

You can be snowbirds.
Mike: He’s going to start playing golf, I’m going to get a huge Cadillac.

Dizengoff and Federal Donuts
250 NW 24 St., Wynwood
Open daily 11am – 7pm

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