Smile Politely

Holy Land a welcome replacement

When Jack’s Grill Mediterranean Cuisine opened this January, it had more than a few people in the community really excited by the prospect of an honest-to-goodness Middle Eastern joint outside of campus town. Oh sure, the walls were bare, there were only like four tables and 12 chairs, the wait was egregiously long at times, and there was lamb’s blood dripping from a plate of kebabs onto the bottom of their meat cooler, in plain sight of the customer — but who cared!? After all, you could get a falefel sandwich made to order for $3.99.

Most people who enjoyed Jack’s Grill forgave the inconsistencies initially because they could tell that it was run on a shoestring budget; most times it was just Jack and his family manning the kitchen, and for some reason that made all of those inconsistencies worthwhile.

But that type of patience could only last so long, especially after prices almost doubled to $5.99 a sandwich and the service didn’t change. Plus, the walls stayed bare, and the tables and chairs stayed disshelveled. To add to an already suspect situation, the generic Pepsi banner that hung outside declaring the restaurant’s GRAND OPENING was still there in October, just days before it finally closed on Oct. 16.

Fast forward ten days to October 26. A new awning was up outside. It says Holy Land Mediterranean Cuisine. Look inside, and Holy Shit, there is decor — nothing wild or crazy — but enough to tell that whomever is in charge has some understanding of the concept behind appetite being dictated by more than just flavors. Look to the right, and Holy Shit, plates of kebabs, wrapped well in plastic with no blood in sight. Have a seat, and someone will come to your, with a menu in hand, and ask how you are doing.

These are all very good things for a new restaurant to deliver on. But in the end, those things pale by comparison to one basic question: does the food taste good?

In a word: yes.

It’s a refreshing thing to write, because for many people, a Middle Eastern joint was sorely missing from Champaign outside of campus. Istanbul, the Turkish joint out by the Spaceship Jupiter, is something different, and Jerusalem — situated in the heart of campus — isn’t the easiest place to get to for those of us who don’t attend classes.

Just after we were seated, that same person who greeted us brought us a complimentary appetizer of baba ganoush, along with small strips of spiced pita bread, dried and crispy-good with which we could dig in.

On the menu, there are plentiful choices, including a meat lovers dream: platter for five people for $59.99 that will serve you kababs, keftas, shawerma, quail, and all the trimmings that you can…. wait. Quail?

That’s right. Quail.

It’s rare, in a town this size, when a restaurant decides to buck the burger trend and offer something a little out of the ordinary. For Jawad Kahala — the owner of the restaurant who hails from Decatur — the decision to offer quail, a small game bird known mainly for the fact that it’s one of the few foods that start with the letter Q, was an easy one.

“I love the quail,” Kahala tells me. “A few years ago, I hadn’t ever eaten it before. But I tasted it, and I loved it. So, I decided to put it on the menu.”

And we should be thankful. The meal, which includes three full birds spiced perfectly in garlic, olive oil and a few special seasonings that are undefined — though cardamom was present for sure — comes with a huge serving of saffron rice with slivered almonds, warm pita bread and tahini sauce. It costs just $12.99. It’s easily more than enough for one very hungry person, and honestly, should be shared.

But the restaurant has more than just that. It’s the staples of Middle Eastern cuisine that make it one of the more promising restaurants to have opened in recent years.

Unlike Jack’s Grill, on the three occasions I have been in, they had their shawerma stacked with real beef, slowly cooking on the upright spit. Jack’s initially offered the same thing, but stopped doing it after a while, likely due to slow sales and wasted product. So, the jury is out as to how long this will last.

The falafel is truly the best in this town, at least based on the two servings that I have had thus far.

And the sandwiches are really filling, especially for the low price. Instead of stuffing a pita with traditional ingredients like hummus, shawerma beef, Jerusalem salad, tahini sauce and cabbage, Holy Land rolls their sandwiches like a burrito in a delicate thin bread. It really has a distinction to it, and that’s what helps it stand out from other restaurants of the same kind.

The dolmehs are decent, if a little over-priced for their size, but still, pretty great.

In the end, the food stands out as being high quality, and that’s really all that matters. The question as to whether this community can truly sustain a Middle Eastern restaurant remains to be seen. The aforementioned “competition” in Jerusalem has the benefit of being just a 1/4 mile from the city’s only Mosque, and happens to have a very prime campus location. So, given that Holy Land sits next to a liquor store on the north side of downtown Champaign, it’s going to take more than good food to likely make the place work.

Let’s hope that Kahala and his tremendous team have a few promotional tricks up their sleeve. At least for the time being, they’ll have to let people know that they are there before it really catches fire.

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