As the middle Eastern music grew louder and the lights were dimmed for dinner, a woman in a babushka and long, flowing skirt emerged from the kitchen to chat with friends in the dining room. For a moment you could imagine yourself in the city of Jerusalem, not just in a restaurant of the same name near Baileys Crossroads.
The woman is the main chef and, with her brother and other relatives, part of a family affair that has its roots at her aunt's restaurant in Washington, Mama Ayesha's, where her mother is chef.
The new venture, in a shopping strip of look-alike stores, is difficult to distinguish at first glance. But in the dining room, paneled in a wood parquet, its warm, inviting character comes through.
The Jerusalem kitchen creates some very tasty, traditional Middle Eastern dishes. Those featuring lamb are exceptionally good. The best could well be shawirmah -- thin strips of lamb that are marinated, broiled and served with slivers of raw onion. The tender lamb cubes in the shish kebab, lightly charred on the outside and still a delicate pink inside, were also flavored with a tangy marinade.
Less to my liking was the consistency of the stuffing for the grape leaves -- a sticky amalgam of rice and lamb -- although the pleasant, crisp flavor of lemon juice permeating the leaves somewhat offset it.
Two chicken dishes were also successful. Sheesh ta'ouk, savory cubes of charcoal broiled chicken, are served as an entree or as a sandwich in pita bread. A whole roasted cornish hen was simple and delicious.
A very popular item at our table was what our waiter called Greek pita bread. Similar to white pizza, it is topped with olive oil, lemon juice, pine nuts and ground sumac -- the sumac adds a bit of sourness to the dish and, we were assured, is not the poisonous variety.
The service is leisurely so we had a while to enjoy some of the appetizers -- the smooth, rich puree of chick peas (hummos); the lemony eggplant dip (baba ghanouj); the nutty, cracked wheat salad with a generous amount of chopped fresh parsley (tabbouleh), and a terrific falafel, crisply fried patties of mashed chick peas and spices. And garlic lovers shouldn't miss a dish called foul (which garlic haters will say is aptly named), fava beans awash in a marinade of mashed garlic cloves, olive oil and lemon juice.
The success at the beginning of the menu, however, is not equaled by the three homemade desserts at the finish. The two desserts with cheese and honey -- nammoura and knafa -- were most notable for their heaviness. The cinnamony baklava was the best of the three.
Desserts aside, the rest of the menu offers a variety of well-executed Middle Eastern food. With such good food at moderate prices, this small, family-run restaurant could win a permanent spot on your dining-out list.