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Hava Nargila

Jordanian chef makes a mean sandwich



I could almost imagine "WHO," "R," "U" billowing towards me in the smoke rings.

Large rings like these only cluster in still air when the draw is through an imposing apparatus like a nargila, or hookah. Although Alice could not respond to Caterpillar with a reasonable answer, her confused confliction has always been my association with nargilas -- OK, that and nontobacco substances.

Not many places in Charlotte brag about smoking within the restaurant; in fact, more and more are proclaiming a smoke-free environment. Not so at owner Yahia Al-Baghdadi's 70-seat Jerusalem Restaurant, a Middle Eastern eatery located in East Charlotte. Smoking a nargila is the traditional way to end a meal throughout much of the Middle East. Typically these water pipes are available at sidewalk eateries and are so inexpensive that each person at the table has one -- and there are pipes with double, triple, even quadruple hoses. The max per pipe at Jerusalem Restaurant is two people and the cost is $8.99, and $5.99 for a tobacco refill. The restaurant stocks a variety of fruit flavored tobaccos. Although patrons smoke on the patio during the day, smoking is permitted in the small dining area after 8 p.m.

My Lebanese sister-in-law tells me "ladies" carry their own mouthpieces. Some of these are intricate and encrusted with jewels or carved wood, while others are plastic. The mouthpieces I saw in Lebanon conveyed a feminine sense of style and are often carried in a protective case. I didn't see anyone using his own mouthpieces at Jerusalem Restaurant.

What distinguishes this joint, though, certainly isn't the smoke: It's the well-crafted food. But, once again, Charlotte is presented with only the minimum for Middle Eastern dishes. The Jerusalem's menu is a roundup of the proverbial suspects: hummus, kabobs, kufta, tabbouli -- you know the routine. The menu is focused on the low-end foods from Egypt to Syria and none from other parts of northern Africa or the Arabian peninsula. The name seems more political (a picture of the Dome of the Rock graces the menu) than gastronomical.

That being said, Chef Nabil Alncheh, who studied in a culinary program in Amman, Jordan, worked in the kitchen of a Meridian Hotel, and was a personal chef for an American ambassador, does an outstanding job with his mere sandwiches.

Take, for instance, his Arabic shawarma, which in a different gastronomic dimension would have been savory meat stuffed into everyday pita. But Chef Alncheh uses shrak bread, a bread hard to find in Charlotte since, like roti, it's a pliable bread baked on the dome of a metal griddle and is typically consumed immediately upon baking. Having good bread is 60 percent of a great sandwich. In many Middle Eastern countries, shawarma meat is layered and skewered vertically, similar to a Turkish döner or a traditional Greek gyro. Alncheh uses slices of smoky rotisserie chicken.

Making the best shawarma in town -- and it is sensational -- makes visiting Jerusalem Restaurant worthy of note. Alncheh's food is generally very good. We devoured the plate of hummus practically before it hit the table and the tabbouleh is bright and fresh -- two of the highest compliments to be paid to this parsley salad, which is often seen around town as mainly grain or hopelessly drowned. Equally good is the chickpea falafel sandwich slathered with tahini, a deal at $2.99. For desserts, the kitchen offers house-made kanafa (aka kataïfi) the pastry which looks like shredded wheat, and baklava heavily doused in honey. Or you can opt for lemon-flavored tobacco in the nargila.

Jerusalem Restaurant is bare bones almost to the point of gritty. Immediately to the left of the entrance is the open kitchen where you can watch Alncheh at work; directly across from the door is "Welcome to the Jerusalem Restaurant" painted in Arabic. It is not translated. Even a close inspection reveals few touches other than some knick knacks, religious writings, and a Palestinian flag. The walls are a rough yellow and the booths lack upholstery. Even the small patio is not shielded from the parking lot.

But the food is good and reasonably priced. Main courses range from $9 for a beef gyro plate to $14 for leg of lamb with lemon aïoli, and includes salad or soup and a side. The meat is halal and there is no liquor license.

Last spring when I first stopped in, I ordered a sandwich to go. The gracious wife of the owner gave me a cup of tea while I waited. Simple hospitality may not overcome the lack of ambiance, but it goes a long way. Alncheh's Jordanian shawarma, however, will bring me in a heartbeat.

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