TRUCKER SPECIAL The “Jerusalem Kebab” is the Israeli version of a pot pie: grilled vegetables and beef-lamb sausage, covered in pita and topped with spices.
Our first real review of the new year, and already we are ticking off one of last week's resolutions for restaurateurs. The Phoenixasked for more Iraqi food in 2011, and here we have it. Jerusalem Pita and Cafe, which has a much larger footprint in Coolidge Corner than its 15 seats would imply, has not only Sephardic food and lots of Israeli fusion dishes, but also Mizrahi food - the cuisine of Jews who settled in Arab countries and points east. They have, in fact, Iraqi-style dishes descending on the paternal branch of the family ownership. Now, if I had an Iraqi mother-in-law, I would not start with the falafel ($5.95/appetizer; $11.95/entrée) or the sambusak ($2.95), but would try to get some stews. But mothers-in-law are on their own schedules, and who knows when an Iraqi stew will pop up as a daily special?
As a kosher restaurant - the thick, fluffy pita are actually flown in from Israel - Jerusalem Pita breaks the mold with large, economical portions of savory food. Quite a lot of it is made from basic ingredients in-house. Since it is a meat restaurant, you have to be a little picky around dairy-based desserts: no actual milk, cream, or butter can be used, so something like baklava or a creamy cake have to be made with vegetable shortening or tofu. Still, any long-haul trucker who didn't mind a little Israeli music could get enough meat and potatoes to make it back to Northern Maine. A vegetarian also gets some goodies here.
We began, as at any trendy bistro, with house-pickled vegetables and some pitas. Then on to one of two soups of the day ($4.95), ours a red-bean soup with a good, rich base, not necessarily meat stock, but convincing. The falafel appetizer is six small patties, quite green with secret herbs, served on hummus. Hummus itself ($4.95) is obviously house-made, with notable chickpea flavor and a good dose of lemon, not so much sesame tahini. It is also the basis of a frequent daily special, hamshuka, which doesn't sound kosher, but it is a Middle East refresher of fried egg on fresh hummus.
Grape leaves ($5.95) are vegan, and hand-rolled small, which means more sour vine flavor per rice filling. Moroccan cigars ($5.95) are six fried thin rolls stuffed with ground meat, and not to be missed. That also goes for the previously mentioned sambusak — fried pasties stuffed with hummus but hyped up with red pepper.
One of my favorite items was pure Balkan Sephardic, mushroom burekas ($2.95). Although these are squares cut from a loaf pan, the flaky pastry puts them right up there with mushroom piroshky or knishes. I was also quite taken with a lightly pickled beet salad ($5.95).
The real trucker special is probably the "Jerusalem kebab" ($16.95). This is like a pot pie, filled with grilled vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, onions, zucchini, peppers; the almost Chinese profusion of veggies is served as a side dish with most dinners), and lightly spiced beef-lamb sausage. It's covered with a thin Iraqi-style pita called a "laffa," and topped with the thyme-sesame herb mixture, zaatar. On the side is a chopped salad of cucumber, tomato, and scallion, and a small portion of hummus. Sandwiches ($7.95–$17.95) are served in the fluffy pita or, for another dollar or two, in the larger and thinner laffa.