Jerusalem Garden Cafe

Flavor: Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, North African
Ambiance: Rich, Moroccan look
Service: Friendly, but at times lackadaisical

Whenever the weather turns, my mind turns with it to the foods of the season. When the wind begins to blow sharp and chill, I dream of hearty stews and porter by the fire, root vegetables and winter greens. When spring comes, I find that the first days of warmth are best greeted with chilled foods – think sushi and cold sake, for example, or ceviche and pilsner. Then there’s the combination I encountered on a recent Asheville culinary excursion: frosty Samuel Smith’s Pale Ale and baba ganouj.

On the first truly balmy day of spring, my Picky Companion and I thought wistfully of the foods we sampled on a trip to Egypt: the cooling cucumber and tomato salads with mint and cilantro, the various chilled eggplant dishes, and the incomparable, dirt-cheap mezze dishes, many of which are devised for a climate that is often relentlessly hot.

The lines of regional cuisine can be somewhat blurry in Egypt, as the country’s flavor has been formed by many and culturally varied hands. So it is with Jerusalem Garden Café, an Asheville restaurant specializing in Mediterranean, Moroccan, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisine, with a dash of American eclectic thrown in. The menu offers a sampling of the flavors than tend to cross borders freely in the region of the world that the restaurant celebrates.

The seemingly ever-present owners, Farouk Badr and his sister, Seham, are quite friendly, and can often be found circulating the room talking to diners. The service is generally friendly as well, but on a recent Monday seemed a bit overwhelmed, with a full dining room and one official server. Finding the dining room devoid of staff to greet us at the door or give guidance as to seating, we somewhat awkwardly took an empty table. One of the owners, ever-gracious, thanked us for seating ourselves and provided us with ice water while we waited for our poor, lone waitress, who took more than 10 minutes to acknowledge us.

Still, it’s a nice place to wait. The restaurant evokes the more sensuous spirit of the Middle East in its decor and entertainment, from the billowy, brightly colored fabrics draped about the ceiling of the main dining room and the entirety of the “tent” room where diners lounge on pillows at low tables, to the live belly dancing offered on weekends. Beaded chandeliers provide a romantic lighting scheme, and the music swells and undulates to a bright but sultry Arabic beat. The tables are of Moroccan style, topped with sturdy brass round trays that would be perfect for a sharing of mezze.

Unfortunately, the mezze idea doesn’t seem to have quite caught on at Jerusalem Garden, as the tapas-like offerings on small plates are somewhat few. Aside from dishes like spinach and feta pie and a fresh mozzarella and tomato plate, the appetizer selection consists largely of items that are available on the vegetarian platter entrée. We elected to try that entrée as our shared appetizer, and it turned out to be the high point of our meal. The platter allows somewhat economically mindful diners to enjoy a liberal sampling of what the restaurant has to offer in the realm of traditional meatless Mediterranean fare.

The baba ganouj was delicious, with a great roasted-eggplant flavor and perfect acidity. The hummus was of a more traditional variety than we have grown accustomed to here – more tahini and olive oil, less garlic, and more of a pasty texture – but great. The tabbouleh was nearly equal parts fresh herbs and bulgur, giving it a bright and verdant flavor. The stuffed grape leaves were also truly delicious – they were full of flavor and so moist they were dripping (get your napkin ready). Also on the platter were a handful of good-quality marinated olives and a delicious cucumber salad that added an excellent textural contrast to everything else. Two little falafel patties, while spiced well, were room temperature and a bit dry, as though they had sat around for a while. The pita served alongside would have been better had it been toasted, but it proved an adequate enough vessel for soaking up the olive oil-drizzled goodness from the platter. By the end, there was nothing left but olive pits to show that there once was a plate full of food on our table.

To get the feel of what diners with varying degrees of adventurousness will find at Jerusalem Garden, we chose entrées that ranged from the exotic (the kibbeh) to the not-so-exotic (sautéed shrimp). Kibbeh is a Lebanese dish of bulgur wheat, spices, herbs, (generally) pine nuts, (sometimes) dried fruit and lamb. The mixture is either shaped into a ball and fried, or served with the meat still raw. I’ve yet to work up the gumption to sample the raw version, but the fried approach has me whole-heartedly addicted.

Jerusalem Garden’s take on the dish was bewitching, with a deep aroma of spices and a savory flavor that meshed perfectly with the taste of the lamb. The sides, my Picky Companion remarked, were “unremarkable,” consisting of fairly unadorned roasted vegetables and a saffron rice that he took issue with for its texture. Nevertheless, this plate too was cleaned. The kibbeh nearly inspired bickering over the final bite, which we diplomatically divided into two tiny portions.

The sautéed shrimp seems to be the dish for the spice-phobic, and should be mentioned to anyone who might drag their feet when it comes to eating “foreign” food. For that matter, so should the fairly unassuming filet mignon entrée. The shrimp was fresh, crisp and somewhat plainly dressed with lemon juice and basil. It was served with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes over the same sides as the kibbeh, for a simple and clean presentation. Adventurous palates, however, would be well-advised to explore other regions of the menu.

There’s much to love about Jerusalem Garden. The atmosphere is sexy, with shimmery cushions and exotic colors, while still being family-friendly, and many consider the restaurant affordable. (We didn’t find it especially cheap on this outing – about $80 between the food, drinks and dessert – but the two of us often consume enough for three diners.) What’s more, the restaurant has a firm sense of community, with plenty of repeat customers. And the $3.50 Sammy Smiths and kick-ass baba don’t hurt either.

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