Michael Solomonov's New Philly Restaurant Is an Ode to the Israeli Grill House
"It's as common as a burger joint in America,” explains beloved Philadelphia-based chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov of a shipudiya, the grill-focused, vegetable-forward Israeli dining concept that inspired his newest restaurant, Laser Wolf.
Taking over a 3,700-square-foot warehouse in Philly’s hip Kensington neighborhood, Solomonov—along with partner Steve Cook—opened doors this week to the spunky, industrial eatery decked out with round paper lanterns, turquoise-hued walls, and tables dressed with retro oilcloths bearing colorful prints of oranges and cherries.
"At this point, we're not introducing Israeli food for the first time,” says the chef, who is credited with helping to boost the national profile of hummus, pita, and more dishes from his home country. In 2008, Solomonov launched Philadelphia's Israeli eatery Zahav, serving dishes like fried cauliflower with labneh and lamb merguez, to wide critical acclaim, and since then he has won four James Beard Awards.
Over the last decade-plus, Philly and more major dining cities have seen an influx of Middle Eastern-inspired concepts, which is why Solomonov feels it's time to push the genre even further. But that doesn’t mean dry ice and liquid nitrogen. In fact, says Solomonov, “We're actually simplifying: stripping down our menu to really showcase the heart of Israeli cuisine."
Enter: the shipudiya. Similar to the American diner in the sense that this typically no-frills neighborhood eatery caters to a crossroads of diners, the shipudiya is Israel’s heart and soul, a communal gathering place embraced by all.
“It's where you stop by and see everyone you know,” says Solomonov, adding that shipudiyas are “happy, lively, interactive places all about sharing food.”
Centered on an abundance of small vegetable-centered share plates, plus charcoal-grilled proteins, Laser Wolf embraces the shipudiya concept, with longtime Zahav chef de cuisine Andrew Henshaw helming the kitchen.
Here's how it works. Patrons first pick a protein—be it a skewered Romanian beef kebab ($32), a whole trout ($42), or even an eggplant ($30)—and that singular price includes a swath of small salads not dissimilar from the banchan that function as a precursor to a Korean barbecue meal. Think kale babaganoush, Israeli pickles, and sweet potato muhammara. And since French fries are a popular side dish in Israel, the team is offering that option ($6), in addition to a wack of foie gras ($24) marinated with pineapple and Baharat spice, grilled and served over half a pita.
Beyond salads and sides, Henshaw grills his meat, fish, and vegetable entrees over a sustainable type of charcoal made from coconut at around 900°F; says Cook, “It burns slowly and adds a mild, clean smoky flavor to whatever it's cooking." Meanwhile bright and fresh citrus-driven cocktails helmed by general manager Kailey Jenkins add a punchy complement to Henshaw’s pared-down fare. Think the Tel Aviv ($12) with gin, cardamom-lime cordial, and cava; and Crime of Passion ($13), a blend of rums spiked with passion fruit and Maraschino.
Striving to capture the energy and soul of the buzzy kebab stalls that line Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, smoky air and all, Solomonov and Cook signed on Boxwood Architects (also responsible for K’Far and Merkaz) to paint their picture. Unfinished walls and an open ceiling, along with a glowing deli case illuminating skewers, lend a sense of casualness, while yellow and purple patterned wallpaper kick up the kitsch.
While Cook admits that he and Solomonov wouldn’t necessarily have had the courage to open such a “stripped-down” eatery a decade ago, he says, “Now we're confident enough to try this.”