Jerusalem Cafe offers Matthews a Middle Eastern option

07/17/2014 3:23 PM

07/17/2014 5:12 PM

Jerusalem Cafe is a spare little spot in a Matthews strip mall, with food served quickly and pleasantly, and a few nice surprises.

Chief among these: Crunchy, lush falafel with tahini in wraps. A smooth, artful hummus, served with decorative stripes of paprika and a central garnish of finely chopped vegetables and herbs, in a pool of olive oil. A sprightly Jerusalem salad – think pico de gallo, if you’re a fan of Mexican food. Also marvelous: a nicely toothsome version of kufta – beef with a bit of lamb, ground, then shaped like cigars, skewered and grilled – in mixed grills or wraps.

Owner Ehab Abuaker is from Jerusalem, where he says he worked in restaurants for more than a dozen years, and uses the same recipes for his hummus, falafel and foul (a lemony blend of seasoned fava beans) – a fact appreciated, he says, by his customers from Israel and the West Bank. Shawerma is hard to do the same way here, he says, where codes don’t permit the same way of cooking as in Jerusalem, where the meat can come on and off the heat, dictated by temperature and how busy the place is.

Also on the menu are an array of kebabs, from filet mignon to chicken to lamb, and these tended to the overcooked, turning tough. Rice, on the other hand, was consistently good, and a special of ouzi – chicken or lamb over basmati rice studded with carrots, peas, raisins and almonds – proved the best way to have chicken.

There’s also mild, salty, white, squeaky “Arabic Cheese” (sometimes called haloumi), which you can get fresh or grilled, with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives, and the beautiful Jerusalem potatoes, small cubed pieces of potato fried and made spicy (if you want it so) with crushed red pepper, and redolent of cilantro and lemon.

Baba ghanoush is the somewhat chunky sort of this smoky eggplant pruee, while the parsley and bulgur wheat salad called tabbouleh again shows the confident and welcome use of lots of lemon. Pies seemed a trifle stale, their pastry saggy around spinach or ground beef fillings.

Abuaker is adding a handful of entrees, including chicken gyros (he already offers a beef version) and a falafel salad.

Several dinner entrees offer combos, but the prices of $17 to $19 overreach the simple setting and friendly, plain service: Pita arrives at the table still in plastic bags, for example, and tables and chairs are in a fast-food vein. The look is mixed, though: Travel posters show beautiful views of Jerusalem, Jaffa and Nazareth, paprika-colored walls add depth, and small hookahs dot a shelf amid a sort of stone wainscoting.

Servers are cheerful, even when the restaurant has run out of what you want, and if you want rotisserie chicken, you had better get there more than an hour before closing. Kufta goes quickly, too, I’m told. Not surprising.

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