Middle Eastern cuisine no longer a novelty

[attach]3625[/attach]When it first opened its doors in 1971, Jerusalem Restaurant was something of a novelty.

Middle Eastern food wasn’t really known or appreciated, but Torontonians embraced falafels and shish kebab with enthusiasm.

I wanted to see if, 40 years later, this spot is still worth a visit. So three of us headed there for lunch.

Colourful fabrics hanging from the ceilings, frescoes of Nomadic scenes and handsomely carved camels give the lie to piles of snow outside the window.

On the menu, dishes like foule, kubbeh and siniyeh bitaheena seem more exotic wearing Arabic names. But names aside, the flavours of the Middle East are unique and wonderful.

We start with baba ghanouj ($4.25) — a ring of spiced, puréed eggplant, inside which is a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and parsley tossed in tahini (sesame paste). There’s a slight smokiness to the eggplant and we can’t resist big dollops of it and salad with fresh, hot pita.

It’s an aubergine day; I can’t resist ordering one of my favourite Middle Eastern appetizers — fried eggplant ($5.25). Thin, lengthwise slices are fried, then drizzled in lemon juice. Properly made, the eggplant is firm on the outside and almost creamy inside with a pleasant tartness. And this one is impeccable.

For the main course, one guest chooses lamb shish kebab ($14.95). Two large skewers of lamb come with a massive helping of salad tossed in a lemony dressing perked up with mint and parsley and a choice of french fries or rice.

The lamb is beautifully tender, she raves, carefully extracting the fat morsels off the skewers, but the french fries are pronounced by this connoisseur of the dish, “too hard — I think they’re frozen.”

My second guest chooses lamb chops with the same accompaniments ($17.95). Four meaty rib chops are perfectly char-grilled.

“The meat just falls off the bone,” she says, and adds, “My fries are delicious — hot and crispy.”

As a change from the traditionally Middle Eastern lamb, I opt for charbroiled shrimp ($15.95). My plate is filled with a dozen large, deliciously spiced, flame grilled shrimp, along with pieces of grilled onions, red and green peppers and zucchini.

A side plate of rice and a bowl of salad accompany this. The rice is bland though patently cooked with some spices, but I like the zestiness of lemon and mint in the salad.

All three of us swear we cannot possibly finish these huge portions, but at the end, only one of us takes home a doggie bag — with two lamb chops. Four proved just too many!

Too full to try the heavier baklava or kunafe, we opt for mahalabia — a rich, firm custard scented with rose water, topped with a sweet syrup and sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts ($3.95).

Incredibly sugary, the flavour is nonetheless very appealing; I love the rose scent in the custard. One guest found it far too sweet, but the second one and I polished it off, despite being full. Enough said!

Three cups of excellent coffee rounded off the meal ($1.95 each).

Despite its vintage, Jerusalem Restaurant patently has not sat back on its laurels. This spot continues to maintain high standards of both food and service. There is now a second location on Leslie Street where they offer a buffet as well as the regular menu at both lunch and dinner, and belly dancing every day.

Jerusalem Restaurant, 955 Eglinton Ave. W. 416-783-6494; and 4777 Leslie St., 416-490-7888. [url=][/url]