Restaurant Review: Jericho
840 Bank St.
Open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
To say that Jericho is full of Raouf Omar is almost no exaggeration. The Glebe restaurant practically brims with its owner’s passions, past and present.
The room is typical of a family-run ethnic restaurant — not fancy, but functional, clean and with a warm atmosphere so established that it seems to ooze from the walls and furniture.
Those walls are covered with Omar’s art, works of coloured glass cut into scenes of his former homes in Lebanon and the West Bank. There are perhaps two dozen of these pieces, vibrant and pleasant, and they give the room a Mediterranean feel. They’re so colourful that it took two visits before we noticed the large murals that Omar has painted on the ceiling.
The man himself is also there, greeting, serving, and generally making guests feel at home. He’s not overbearing, as many on-site owners can be in restaurants. The personal recollections he shares with us — he’s Palestinian, and tells us he once worked as a sort of art ambassador for the PLO — come only after we pepper him with questions. He is at once relaxed and intense. One of my guests, perhaps smitten, says Omar has “a smouldering warmth.”
In the kitchen Omar, as executive chef, expresses himself again with a menu of “Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.” The names are familiar — stuffed grape leaves, kebby, spanakopita, falafal — but Omar has refined them to his own tastes, with great success.
On my first visit, a lunch, I order the “house combo,” a name too inauspicious for what arrives at my table. In my experience, most Middle Eastern food in this city (and this country) is best eaten late at night, while drunk so you don’t taste its soulless mediocrity. In contrast, my “house combo” at Jericho intoxicates with flavour.
Every element of the combo plate is a hit. The hummus has a smooth, creamy texture, and it doesn’t overwhelm with garlic. There’s a healthy dollop of it on the platter and — for the first time in my life — I eat all the hummus put before me. Even the pinkish cubes of pickled turnip go quickly, each tart and crunchy amid the hummus-stuffed pita.
The grape leaves are small, a little salty, but succulent. They’re stuffed with rice and veg and spices, and served warm, which is essential to their flavour but, sadly, not always the case in restaurants. There’s also an ample serving of green salad with a simple, tart dressing.
The fatayer — a small, triangular pastry stuffed with spinach and cheese — is warm and delightfully puffy. The star of the plate, to my tastes, is the kebby. Too often the dish is like a falafal with a bit of beef thrown in as an afterthought: Jericho’s kebby is crisp on the outside — cooked fresh, obviously — and full of aromatically spiced beef. During my second visit, with three guests, we all agree we’ve never had one better.
There’s only one misfire during the second visit, and it’s a fatayer with too much pastry and not enough filling. Otherwise, a second house combo plate impresses again.
With three guests along, the menu gets a thorough investigation — even into the incongruous concessions to popular demand, with fish and chips, burgers and “spicy chicken.” One guest opts for the spicy chicken and we’re all pleasantly surprised how moist and flavourful it is. The rice that comes with it is fragrant with saffron and cinnamon. (The chicken’s flavour notwithstanding, Omar should cut the non-Middle Eastern dishes from his menu, as their presence sends the wrong message to potential diners that the restaurant is not focused on its speciality.)
Another guest has the spanakopita plate, and it’s a massive serving of spinach, feta and spices inside phyllo pastry. It’s a challenge to eat it all, though the flavour compels us to try. My third guest has the lamb kafte, a sausage that’s crumbly on the inside and bursting with spicy flavour. Two large sausages disappear faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
For afters we have a glass of rosewater iced tea, caffeine-free and wholly refreshing, and Oma’s homemade baklava. It’s drier than most baklava, but free of that syrupy goo that often makes the traditional treat icky. Like all the dishes on the menu, it’s a “familiar taste, but slightly askew,” as my friend says.
That slight askewness is enough to make Jericho stand out, and the prices only add to the appeal. A hearty dinner for four, with dessert and a round of wine or crisp Tiger beers, was around $80. I was tempted to say, “make it a $100 and give me a tub of hummus to go.”