Not many chefs would take on the challenge of opening two restaurants at the same time. This summer, that’s exactly what Michael Solomonov, chef and entrepreneur behind the CookNSolo restaurant group, did with his partner Steve Cook. Abe Fisher brings the food of the Jewish Diaspora to Philadelphia, and Dizengoff, located right next door, serves up platters of hummus, pita and seasonal salads. These eateries join a list of hit restaurants like Zahav and Federal Donuts. We sat down with Solomonov to chat about food, his upcoming PBS documentary, filmed in his homeland Israel, and travel.
You opened two restaurants this summer. Did you always plan to open them together?
It seemed like a good idea at the time [laughs]. Since opening them, we’ve made some adjustments. It’s cool.
Abe Fisher features cuisine of the Jewish Diaspora. Can you tell me about that?
It’s the complete opposite of Zahav. The cooking we do at Zahav is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. Abe Fisher is more European. There are influences from Budapest and Paris, and even New York and Montreal.
What is the must-try dish at Abe Fisher?
The gefilte fish. Most people know it as dumplings, but the real gefilte fish is stuffed. We make it traditionally but glaze it so it’s not entirely traditional. It’s a really great way to eat it.
Let’s talk about Dizengoff, the hummusiya next door. What hummus should I order?
Call me a sucker for plain, but the plain hummus is always good. The menu changes so frequently that there’s something different to try all the time.
You’ve said that Israel gives you culinary inspiration. Do you draw inspiration from any other places?
I think the thing about Israeli food is that it comes from many different places. A bunch of different cultures make up Israel—similar to the States.
What is something that you could not do your job without?
My business partner Steve. We built this together. We come up with food together. We troubleshoot.
In the midst of the opening of two restaurants, and recent expansion of Federal Donuts, you’re also filming a PBS documentary. What is it you hope to accomplish through this project?
I think that a part of my life’s work is to represent Israelis and Israel as I know it. Unfortunately, Israel gets a bad rap by the way its portrayed. I don’t think it’s totally accurate and I think that there’s a way to support any culture when it’s just about food. It’s a way to celebrate a culture without having to get into a heated political discussion.
What is the secret behind your success?
My team at CookNSolo. I owe my personal success to my business partner Steve and my wife.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
Ever give a fist pump at the top of the Rocky Stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
Not yet [laughs]. When my wife and I ran the Broad Street Run and got down to South Philly by the stadiums, someone was playing the “Rocky” soundtrack and I looked over and tears were streaming down her face.
For someone who has never been to Philadelphia before, what are the top two things to do in the city?
What would you say is the best Philadelphia neighborhood to explore right now?
I’m an Old City guy. There are tons of historic sights to see, really cool boutiques and there’s good food. That’s a really hard question to answer because Philly is walkable and the neighborhoods are so different. I walk from Zahav in Old City to Abe Fischer in Rittenhouse and it really looks like it could be a different city from where I just was.
What destination is at the top of your bucket list?
I really want to go to Morocco, but at the top is a trip to the Mentawai Islands on the western coast of Sumatra. There’s really good surfing and food.
If you could sit next to any person on a plane, who would it be?
They would have to be someone really funny. Louie C.K.
I don’t know, man. The restaurants are really busy. We’re looking to open more Federal Donuts. I haven’t gotten a tattoo in awhile, so probably one of those.