According to the owner, Marwan Kadi, it took a couple of years to build a solid following. "People were scared," he says. "They had no idea what to make of Lebanese food." All of that's changed. On both visits, I was greeted warmly and treated like a regular guest. Many customers received hugs and kisses from the hostess, Leila Kadi, as they entered and were on a first-name basis with the owner. This is always a good sign, and you could feel the sense of community in the room. By 7:30 both nights, the dining room was quickly filling up.
The food here is straightforward and good. The dinner menu offers a generous array of entree options, many of which can be made vegetarian. It includes the always popular kababs (lamb, beef or shrimp) and falafel, as well as lesser-known dishes such as fatayer, a small pie of flaky pastry stuffed with fragrant, spicy ground beef. Order the appetizer sampler ($11.95), which offers tastings of several favorite starters, including babaghanouge (eggplant puree), hummus and stuffed grape leaves. The hummus is divine: smooth and silky, heavy on the tahini, with a splash of fruity olive oil. The babaghanouge has an exaggerated smoky flavor that verges on being too harsh but still works. A basket of white pita bread accompanies the sampler.
Tabboule, a traditional Lebanese salad, is served with each entree. I usually detest this salad, but here the wheat is crushed but fluffy, and the lemon juice is used sparingly. Still, the overall result is a mouthful of parsley and not much else, though it does cleanse the palate. A lightly toasted rice pilaf is another side dish. The menu calls it saffron rice, but there was no discernible saffron flavor or color.
Kababs are a smart choice. The cooks at The Grapeleaf prepare the meat with care. Lamb chops are sectioned into smaller chunks and are full of flavor with a good chew, just how lamb should be. On the kabab, the lamb chunks are seasoned with a hint of cloves. The beef kabab was superb; the meat is like caramelized pot roast on a stick tinged with a tangy, vinegar-based marinade.
There's also an accompanying vegetable kabab with grilled onion, green pepper, tomato and mushroom all flavorful. The shrimp are average in size and flavor with a heavy cloaking of oregano.
The tilapia, a mild white fish, is a lovely, thick and moist fillet. A briny tomato sauce, thick like gravy and studded with corn, olives and pistachios, enhances its delicate taste.
For dessert the kashtalieh, a milk-based custard, provides an appropriate end note. It's a very mild, almost tasteless pudding with sweet orange-blossom water added and almonds sprinkled on top. Its subtlety could easily be lost, but it serves as a refreshing end to a meal of strong flavors.
I'll never understand the choice of music in many ethnic restaurants, including this one. Is the eclectic mess of mainly out-of-place classical meant to appeal to the masses? I find it detracts from the full ambience that could be attained, but at least they had it at a reasonable volume.
The Grapeleaf succeeds in using its location to high advantage. Consistent, high-quality food and a family atmosphere should keep this neighborhood favorite filled every night of the week with locals. It's even worth a trip to the West End if you don't live there. S
The Grapeleaf ($$)
7003 Three Chopt Road
Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 1:45 p.m.
Dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
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