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Praise the Lamb 

At Jerusalem, sincerity and shanks are the standouts.

click to enlarge The marinated lamb shank at Jerusalem is satisfyingly tender at a moderate price point. The cafe is located in the former Cedars spot downtown. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The marinated lamb shank at Jerusalem is satisfyingly tender at a moderate price point. The cafe is located in the former Cedars spot downtown.

Jerusalem, the holy land for the Abraham-centered faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, may be the site of divisive politics and religious differences. But the food traditions bring the people of these diverse cultures together.

Jerusalem restaurant promises to bring a taste of the holy land to downtown Richmond in the former location of the Lebanese restaurant Cedars. While the geographical inspiration of the food may have shifted a few hundred miles to the south, Jerusalem offers a similar menu to its predecessor, with Mediterranean staples such as hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel and shawarma. Jerusalem offers solid and consistent takes on these classic foods, but fails to inspire as a trip to the Holy Land should.

Jerusalem is a small Virginia chain, with other outlets in Falls Church and Sterling. The decor is simple, almost shabby, but clean and homey feeling. Most of the wait staff is welcoming and genuinely interested in your experience. If you happen to visit when Vanessa is working, ask for her recommendations; they’re consistently better than what I choose without her input. When my choice of house pies isn’t available — missing menu items turn out to be a minor theme of my visits — she recommends the excellent kibbe ($6.50), a breaded and fried appetizer of spiced ground lamb. The house pies, which like many dishes are made in the Falls Church location, are available on another visit. Made with homemade bread dough — a change from the familiar Greek phyllo-based version — these ($5.50) come with spinach, cheese or meat fillings.

Another of her recommendations yields the best of my meals at Jerusalem, the house specialty lamb shank ($14.50), a marinated bone-in leg of lamb that’s tender, flavorful and served with a generous portion of rice and salad. The ubiquitous yogurt sauce is a perfect companion to lighten the lamb’s meaty flavor.

Other dishes are acceptable, if unremarkable. The falafel, available as an appetizer ($5.95) or a sandwich ($5.95), is well-cooked but frankly uninteresting; the spices are barely detectable. The chicken shawarma sandwich ($5.95), served like all sandwiches in a wrap, is similarly underflavored and lackluster, the promised Middle Eastern spice marinade somehow failing to reach the palate. The accompanying french fries do little to improve the meal.

Similarly unremarkable are the standards of hummus and baba ghanouj The hummus ($4.95) tastes freshly made and the flavors are clean, but Jerusalem’s version lacks a garlic punch or lemon tang. Perhaps the city of Jerusalem serves hummus with only chickpeas and tahini as the dominant flavors, but I’d hoped for more complexity. The baba ghanouj ($4.95) tastes primarily of smoke, which I hope is because of freshly roasted eggplant, which overwhelms the other ingredients.

The kebabs are bright spots, executed well with tender and juicy meat and a nice char from the grill. Best of these is the chicken kebab ($10.95), generous portions of lightly seasoned and juicy white meat punctuated by grilled onions and tomatoes. The shish kebab ($13.95) of lamb chunks and kafta kebab ($10.50) of spiced ground beef also are flavorful and worth a try.

For dessert don’t miss the basboosa ($2), a semolina cake flavored with coconut and soaked in syrup. Actually, buy some any time you’re in the area, as it’s far better than any sweet indulgence you’ll find at a convenience store or chain coffee shop.

There are better versions of most dishes on Jerusalem’s menu elsewhere in Richmond. But the staff is working hard to serve authentic, affordable, well-executed food in a location that’s convenient for downtown office workers. Even if the food isn’t as inspired as its namesake location might suggest, Jerusalem is worth a visit. S

Jerusalem
106 N. Seventh St.
771-1665
Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

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