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Dining review: Cozy setting, hearty fare at Heart of Jerusalem

by M.B. Partlow mb.partlow@gazette.com - Updated: February 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm 0

As an inveterate tea drinker, I cherish the value of a good cuppa to warm me up on a cold day. What I didn't realize was missing from my tea repertoire was delivered to me in a small metal teapot at Heart of Jerusalem Cafe.

I lost track of how many times our waitress refilled the pot with steaming, fragrant sage tea. But I do remember that it made the snow falling outside seem like a distant worry as I cradled the warm cup.

The Heart of Jerusalem location near Doherty High School is a cozy, casual little nook. The fare is hearty comfort food, with sandwiches and platters highlighting Mediterranean flavors like garlic, lemon and olive oil. Service is fairly quick, although it slows down as the restaurant fills. The meals are served on disposable or plastic plates and dishes.

If you look up the restaurant online, be aware that the entire first page of the menu, which offers a variety of kabobs, is available only in the other location in Manitou Springs.

As I sat sipping tea with a friend, we ordered the pita chips sized for two ($3.99) while we looked over the menu. The serving was huge, with crunchy pita triangles seasoned with olive oil and za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix of dried herbs, sesame seeds and dried sumac. The chips were served with gazaziki sauce, a yogurt-based condiment similar to tzatziki, except it's based on garlic and does not contain cucumber.

The sandwiches, wrapped in warm, chewy pita bread, are substantial. They all include house-made hummus, gazaziki, tomatoes, pickled turnips for a little crunch and banana peppers for a little zing. And that's all before you get around to the main sandwich ingredient. They don't come with anything on the side, but for $4 you can add a side and a fountain drink.

The Heart of Jerusalem sandwich ($7.99) combines tender, marinated pieces of beef, lamb and chicken breast. While tasty, in this dish and in other preparations, the meats are diced fairly small, rendering it difficult to distinguish the flavor of the beef from the lamb.

The Chikofel sandwich ($7.99) lets the chicken shine through a little bit more. The diced chicken is combined with falafel that's crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside. In this one you can pick up the subtle hint of turmeric, which is earthy and pleasantly bitter.

If you'd like an appetizer that can stand on its own as a light meal, try the Manakeesh ($4.99). A za'atar-seasoned pita is topped with crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, sliced tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil, then folded and sliced into wedges. Although the pita isn't made in-house, it is chewy, and the toppings, which are made there, are a perfect balance of fresh and salty.

Heart of Jerusalem also makes two Middle Eastern staples. Hummus ($7.99 with pita and falafel for dipping) is a dip or spread made from mashed garbanzo beans, tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. The version here was somewhat bland, although beautifully smooth. The other staple is babaganooj ($7.99 with pita and falafel), and there's nothing bland about this dish. The roasted, mashed eggplant is seasoned with olive oil, tahini and garlic and has a silky texture and a smoky flavor.

All the platters at Heart of Jerusalem are served on a bed of lettuce, or you can upgrade to saffron rice for $1.99. The choice depends on whether you want a heartier meal or a lighter meal. The Ultimate Plate ($9.99) was where the small dice of meat was most disappointing. While the cut works great for the sandwiches, it's not visually appealing piled on a platter, and the individual flavors of the marinades and the meats are lost.

The dolmas plate ($8.99) was tasty, the grape leaves and their lemony rice filling served warm, which I believe has a better texture and flavor than dolmas served cold. On the side was tabouleh salad, with loads of green onion and parsley combined with diced tomato and cracked wheat, simply dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and a little salt.

If you're a falafel fan, this is the place to go. The falafel platter ($7.99) came with heart-shaped falafel on pita bread triangles. Not only were they cute, but these were some of the best falafel I've had in the Springs. The outside was crunchy, while the interior stayed fluffy and moist. The chickpea base had enough garlic, cilantro, parsley and other warm spices to keep them from being bland. They're equally delicious whether eaten out of hand, dipped in the gazaziki or folded into a sandwich.

And they make a great foil for a cup of sage tea.

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Restaurant character: Small, casual, inexpensive restaurant offering good Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters based around beef, lamb, chicken and really wonderful falafel.

Rating total: 3.25 out of 5 stars

Food: 4 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 3 out of 5 stars

Service: 3 out of 5 stars

Address: 4587 Austin Bluffs Parkway, 80916 (second location in Manitou Springs)

Contact: 685-9554, heartofjerusalem cafe.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday- Thursday; 11:15 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Sundays

Entrees: $5.99-$9.99

Alcohol: No

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: Yes; veggie sandwich ($5.99), falafel sandwich ($6.99)

Wi-Fi: No

what's online As of Feb. 12:

- 92 percent of 83 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 4 out of 5 stars based on 71 reviews on Yelp

- On Facebook; search "Heart of Jerusalem Cafe"

- One violation was corrected during a December inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.

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