Filmmaker Roger Sherman’s great documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, opens with Israeli/American chef Mike Solomonov sitting down at the counter of a tiny Yemenite eatery in Tel Aviv, hungry for something small to nosh on. Cut to the next scene and there are 17 salads, plus hummus, in front of him. He explains each emanates from a different origin: Yemenite, Palestinian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Russian, Turkish, Greek and more. That’s even before he orders a mixed-grill in a pita, “the epitome of old school street food.”
You’ve definitely heard of Solomonov. Perhaps you’ve even been to Zahav, his flagship restaurant in Philadelphia, or you own one of his three wonderful cookbooks, or you’ve ordered his tender lamb shoulder on Goldbelly? On May 1st, the chef and his business partner, Steven Cook are landing on the rooftop of the Hoxton Hotel in Brooklyn where they are launching the New York outpost of Laser Wolf, their own version of an Israeli BBQ restaurant. Since the original Laser Wolf launched in Philadelphia two years ago, it has made headlines, including being named one of the best new restaurants in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.
For most chefs, opening a full-fledged restaurant in New York is a dream come true, a consecration of sorts. But for Solomonov it seems, the opening of Laser Wolf, named after Lazar Wolf the butcher in Sheldon Harnick’s musical Fiddler on the Roof, marks just another step along his extraordinary journey. A journey full of joy and tragedy, launches and false starts, family, friendships, and food.
Stepping onto the Hoxton rooftop, I expected typical backstage pre-opening mayhem. Instead, I was greeted by a round of applause. Had I missed the show? But no, the lead—sunglasses, leather jacket and wide smile, was finishing a staff training session.
“Back in 2003, I was cooking in fine dining in Philly,” he said later, “Hoping to get to Arzak in San Sebastian next, then Michel Bras in France.”
But his trajectory veered off course on Yom Kippur 2003, when the chef learned his younger brother David, who was about to graduate from the Israeli army, had just been killed by snipers near the Lebanon border. He was 21 years old.
“It made me question everything,” Solomonov said.
In the years that followed, the chef battled his own demons, struggling to find meaning and purpose. Then he met Steven Cook who would become his business partner and best friend. While spending time in Israel, Solomonov came to grips with the fact that the food of the country was within him, was part of him. He needed to cook that cuisine and share it with his audience. With the opening of Zahav, he finally found a way to express himself. Both partners now oversee 22 restaurants in the Philadelphia area.
The duo have partnered with the Chicago-based Boka Group to open Brooklyn’s Laser Wolf, a casual grill modeled after a shipudiya, a skewer eatery, where executive chef Andrew Henshaw and chef de cuisine Michael Mayo sear meats, fish and vegetables suspended just over the extreme heat of the coals, and in full view of the 100 or so diners. Rumor has it there will be one more restaurant to come within the Hoxton Hotel.
I was looking forward to the hummus and the salatims, the salads served in small plates that appear as soon as diners choose their skewer, but once a carnivore, always a carnivore. As soon as I tasted the cured short ribs, redolent of passion fruit and green mango pickled with fenugreek and turmeric, all I could think of was how to politely ask for more.
Everything sings of spices and intense flavors. In the Bulgarian beef kebab, the meat is grounded and mixed with Aleppo pepper, cumin and paprika. The chicken shashlik is marinated in amba. Theres’s babaganoush on steroids, mushrooms with Swisschard marinated in sour cherries and sumac, broccolini and chickpeas mixed with preserved lemon. I want to try it all.
At the end of the meal, Solomonov runs out. He is heading to Penn Station, service at Zahav is starting soon.