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Jerusalem Cafe impresses 

An unassuming exterior conceals some outstanding Middle Eastern eats.

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It's got to be a tough thing to sit kitty corner to Cousin's on Lady Hammond. While nobody is showering the diner with the glitter and gilded praise of Best of lists, Cousin's is an institution that has long lured in more than sailors with the siren song of cheap breakfasts and hot turkey sandwiches.

But that's just where Jerusalem Cafe sits. It's unimposing, the vague shadow of a former corner store still lingers around the edges: if you didn't know the restaurant was there, you might not look twice. Inside, though, it's another story. It feels like a trick of the eye since it's so cozy, but the restaurant is huge. The front has a casual eating area; the back is a warm, inviting area drenched in a liquid red light. Benches and cushions line the red, lantern-lit walls. The gliding melodies of Arabic music give the room a nice energy, even though it's almost empty, just after 6pm on a weeknight.

Our server greets us with a warm smile and urges us to make ourselves comfortable at one of the benched tables in the back. He brings us tall glasses of icy water and menus, noting their unique dishes with pride and excitement, and offering any assistance we may need to make decisions. When he returns, we ask our questions and he offers detailed descriptions, noting what has been popular with new patrons, promising a tasty meal wherever our choices take us.

We order the makluba ($12.49), the baked potato, chicken and rice ($12.39) and the kusa mahshi, a stuffed zucchini ($12.79). As our server mentions, the food is markedly different than that I've had in other local Middle Eastern restaurants in Halifax, but at the same time the ingredients and flavour profiles are all incredibly accessible, even familiar and homey. Combined, the three dishes we order make for a large spread, so we share everything.

The makluba is a very simple, subtly spiced, chicken dish. Chicken, potatoes and peanuts are cooked and plated beneath a rice pilaf, flipped over when served, an upside down cake of sorts. A very acidic salad is served with it. I like the combination as the salad reads as a very pert counterpoint to the blander starch dish.

The baked potato is actually a soup with potatoes and chicken in a delicate broth. Two slices of fresh tomato float on the top. A big pile of rice is served on the side. Nothing about the meal feels heavy, but it's filling.

The zucchini is also a soup, this time in a tomato broth. The zucchini is stuffed with a rice mixture, and once sliced through---it's fork tender---everything mixes into a sort of hodgepodge of a soup. A yogurt is served on the side, thick and tangy.

There is nothing very heavily spiced, the flavours are either very delicate, or hit very specific notes like tart, tangy or earthy. There is no flash or bang, but a lot of comfort in the simple fare.

Midway through the meal, I order a mango smoothie ($5.39) on impulse. It was a good impulse. The smoothie is thick and mildly sweet, in a huge mug topped with coconut and crushed pistachios. After a few sips, our server drops by to show us a picture of a terrific-looking swirled mixed fruit smoothie he suggests for next time.

We're almost too full, but decide to split a large triangle of baklava ($2) for dessert after our server promises it will be the best we've ever had. He tells us it's on the house if it isn't. Once we taste it, we realize what a canny bluff he played. It's incredible. Better than any baklava I've had---flaky and honeyed without being syrupy or cloying. We're happy to let the house win.

Our server sees us off with a smile. It's been a great experience. I'll be back.

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