Big, bright move
by M.B. Lewis
From the August, 2015 issue
For nearly three decades, Jerusalem Garden's food and fellowship kept loyal fans ducking into its hobbit hole of a storefront on Fifth Ave. across from the post office. I'd pop in mainly for carryout, because the tiny dining space set off my claustrophobia radar. Observing the staff prep, cook, and ring up orders was like watching a tightly choreographed crew in a minimalist sailboat galley. Maybe they had to take a couple steps to put it all together, but mostly they just twisted and reached.
I usually just picked up a pita sandwich or a tub of the creamiest hummus around, blended beyond the last identifiable bit of chickpeas. Exploring the menu is easier now at the bigger new Jerusalem Garden around the corner on Liberty, in the historic VFW hall that long housed Seva. With stylized signage out front that condenses the name to "JG," it now has a big-city, big-time feel, a switch both from the cramped original Jerusalem Garden and the previous tenant, Seva. With the walls knocked out and ceiling raised, the airiness is uplifting. Seva's aging hippie fern-bar feel has been exorcised along with its wood-paneled walls. Nostalgic murals depicting rustic life in Jerusalem and traditional kitchen work add to the brightness, as does an Afropop soundtrack. Lots of lights shine on eighteen small tables scattered in the main room, a semi-private dining area toward the back, and a quick-lunch area of high tables, where I saw folks digging into their carryout orders, toward the front. And there's counter seating alongside the open kitchen.
JG's distinctive brand of Middle Eastern made the move almost unchanged. A pureed red lentil soup, served thick, peppery, and spiked with turmeric to an ochre hue, is a far cry from the gray, grainy lentil broths found elsewhere. Tidy vegetarian and meat-filled grape leaves may look alike from the outside but, sweetened by currants and a bit of tomato, the vegetarian roll is the more flavorful of the
two. A delicate, lemony "spinach pie" fatayer pastry is tasty but sparing enough on Popeye's power source that even a spinach-avoider would likely enjoy it. There's a larger meat pie, too, filled with ground beef and lamb.
Jerusalem Garden's classic light and not-too-garlicky hummus is a mainstay on the new menu. So is baba ghanoush, creamy roasted eggplant, confetti-flecked with parsley and tomato. Both staples turn up as sides on several platters and as a component in many dishes, including pita wraps that are some of the last five-buck sandwiches in town. The falafel--which can be ordered as a starter, sandwich, or meal--has telltale tinges of parsley green and is fried crunchy on the outside but not too greasy. A hefty but oddly successful offering is the Jerusalem burger, made with ground beef and lamb baked in grape leaves and served in gyro-like slices. It's a lot of food for six and a half bucks. (Like the menu, prices have scarcely changed.)
Fresher, lighter fare includes JG's smart take on fattoush salad: full of tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, and onion, dusted with powdered sumac, and mixed with your choice of toasted or fried pita chips. A surprise comes with JG's weirdly wonderful gluten-free take on tabbouleh--instead of cracked barley, it's built around quinoa on a colorful backdrop of carrot, red pepper, cucumber, and very fresh parsley. A tahini-dressed chopped salad was watery and disappointing; the simple yogurt and cucumber, enlivened by touches of mint and garlic, proved a more successful side.
You can choose from more than a half-dozen meat kabob and kibbe offerings (sandwiches, platters, and combos). Servers were helpful and downright enabling for creative substituting on some of their groupings--little did they know my goal was a taste-and-tell for everything on the menu, though I came up short even after four visits. A favorite entree was the hummus version of a chicken shawarma plate, with its slim "free range chicken breast" nicely grilled on the outside and moist on the inside; it could disappoint traditionalists if they are looking for classic shawarma caramelized from a vertical rotisserie grill, but I like the lighter style. The chicken on a bed of fine JG hummus makes for an appealing flavor and texture combination. Consider the fattoush with the toasted pita chips as your side to complete this exquisitely subtle meal.
B-school case studies are full of ventures failing when they scale up, but JG has kept its basic good food and value intact. And it carried over some longtime staff, who interact comfortably with customers, particularly at the counter. On a solo visit, I sat at the kitchen-side counter and purposefully left time for the little traditional Middle Eastern desserts. Most are imported from Dearborn, although buttery ghraybeh-style S-swirl cookies with pine-nut belly buttons are made in house, my server told me, as is the rice pudding, his favorite dessert. The honey-nut baklava and coconut-semolina namoura cakes can be enjoyed with mint tea or local Roos Roast Lobster Butter Love coffee. But I came intent on putting a dent into a three-plus-cup pot of Turkish coffee. It's blissfully aromatic, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with cardamom--and perhaps other spices that no servers could (or would) confirm. In any case, the end result is an almost flowery bloom of flavor. It's a fun bit of ceremony to tip the traditional long-handled cezve pot into a demitasse china cup, sipping the frothy coffee "crema" ring inside. When finished, I spilled the dregs onto my plate and two different servers joined in an amateur reading of the grounds at the bottom of my cup.
"It's something about finances," said one, "because everything is about money."
"Looks like a whale, animated, because look at those eyes," said another, while I stole a peek at his arm to check for similar themes in his tattoos.
Less creatively, I divined a crooked smiley face in the grounds, which summed up my fully fed, pleasantly caffeinated, and sugar-topped Jerusalem Garden state of well-being.
314 E. Liberty
Starters $4-$6.50; sides, salads, and sandwiches $2-$6.50; main dish platters with up to two sides $7.50- $14
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
[Originally published in August, 2015.]
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