Updated November 10, 2023 - 7:17 pm
Not for Michael Solomonov the overwrought doughnut: the jarring flavors, the extravagant trimmings, the concern first for the smartphone, not enjoyable eating. In the eternal push-pull between classic and baroque, count Solomonov among the classicists.
“I don’t like crazy stuff on top of doughnuts. I don’t want it to be over-designed and get in the way of experiencing the doughnut,” said the multiple James Beard Award winner and the chef-partner in more than 20 restaurants across Philadelphia and New York City, including the famed Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philly.
“The doughnuts speak for themselves,” the chef concluded.
Come the first part of 2024, they’ll be speaking at Red Rock Resort in Summerlin as Solomonov and his business partner, Steve Cook, launch their Federal Donuts & Chicken at the property. The Las Vegas shop will be the first outside Philadelphia since Federal Donuts (now at 11 stores in the city) debuted in 2011.
As the name suggests, fried chicken joins the doughnuts; coffee is in the mix, too. The trio have anchored Federal Donuts since day one, and in the case of doughnuts and fried chicken, well before the current craze for these foods.
“I’m not sure that we were the first to do it, but doughnuts, chicken and coffee are the three major food groups in the United States, and everyone likes at least one, if not all three,” Solomonov said. “There’s nothing really as nostalgic as a hot doughnut.”
An fruitful accident
Zahav opened in 2008 to immediate acclaim. That year and the year after, Solomonov received Beard nominations for Rising Star Chef of the Year, followed by a Best Chefs nod in 2010 and a win in the category in 2011. Given the direction of that momentum, why did Solomonov open a doughnut shop? Did he want a change from fine dining?
“It was done by accident,” the chef explained. He and Cook met three owners of a third-wave (specialty) coffee shop who wanted to open a doughnut shop. Solomonov was eating a lot of Korean fried chicken at the time. Doughnuts, chicken and coffee serendipitously came together, and the five founders had a created a new brand.
Solomonov visited Vegas several years ago. A full-service restaurant was considered at that time, but in the end, the more casual Federal Donuts — takeout only, with seating in the food court — made the most sense, Solomonov said, as did the Summerlin location.
“I like being part of a community.”
A foundation of cake and spice
The doughnuts at Federal Donuts are fashioned from cake batter spiked with a bit of baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes cinnamon and cloves. “It’s really, really tender, really buttery,” Solomonov said of the cake foundation.
The doughnuts come in three styles. Hot & Fresh are made to order and tossed in cinnamon brown sugar or cookies and cream spice blend or strawberry lavender blend. Classic versions run to old-fashioned milk glazed, chocolate glazed or a chocolate cake doughnut with milk glaze.
And then there are the Fancy doughnuts topped with imaginative flavors. Look for a base of cranberry glaze striped with orange glaze or a pumpkin cake doughnut with vanilla bean cream cheese glaze or a golden milk latte with turmeric glaze and flecks of chai spice.
“We don’t need bells and whistles when we have very good quality handmade doughnuts,” Solomonov said.
One chicken, twice fried
When the original Federal Donuts & Chicken opened in Philadelphia, there were lines down the block the first two days, Solomonov said. It was clear the restaurant wouldn’t be able to accommodate the fried chicken demand, “so I cut the chicken into pieces and just handed it out.”
Today, the chicken is cured overnight in onion, garlic and mustard powder. It’s robed in a thin batter, fried at a low temperature, then drained and rested. On order, the chicken is briefly fried at a very high temperature.
“You get a juicy moist interior and a really crispy exterior,” the chef said, “The interior is protected.”
The twice-cooked chicken takes pride of place in a basket of tenders with dipping sauces or in a Buffalo chicken sandwich with bread and butter pickles or in a fried chicken sandwich dusted with buttermilk ranch seasoning, among other dishes.
Another, undisciplined restaurant could not resist mashing together its doughnuts and fried chicken into something requiring enormous buns and thick skewers and social media affirmation.
But not at Federal Donuts & Chicken, of course. At Federal, less is more. And restraint is a dish best served glazed. And fried.