A taste for adventure
Vine Leaves delivers Middle Eastern dishes, piano noodlings, eclectic people-watching and lots of upstart quirks
As you dip warm pita bread into whipped cream-smooth hummus, pianist Tom Grant begins tapping the unmistakable intro of 'Birthday' by the Beatles, even though there are no diners so celebrating tonight. When you ask the waitress if you can use the phone, she brings her personal cell phone to the table with a cheery 'Nights and weekends free!' pronouncement. To reach the restrooms, you must travel several hundred feet through chilly halls in the back of the building.
These are just a few of the idiosyncrasies that make dining at Vine Leaves a tad unusual. When it comes to food, the new Middle Eastern restaurant is as average as it gets, but various quirks cut the banality like a scimitar.
Should you swing by on a weekend night, when local jazz musicians rule the grand piano situated at the dining room's entrance, you're likely to encounter an AARP card-carrying crowd that is very much digging tepid golden oldie renditions.
They will not be amused should your table contract an unceasing case of the giggles. Then again, you could have the entire restaurant to yourself on a slow weeknight, the front bar area occupied solely by a couple of regulars and off-duty bartenders. Either way, the setting borders on the surreal.
Friendly, upbeat waitresses bring things back down to earth, as does a Lebanese Pilsener from the bar. The fresh-baked pita helps too, though you won't find much comfort in the unremarkable appetizers. Shrimp kyrdis are pleasantly plump but amazingly bland for prawns that are bathed in a garlic-jalape–o sauce. Hummus is effortlessly satisfying, but in another simple starter Ñ cucumbers in minty yogurt Ñ you can barely discern the cukes in all that yogurt.
If dining with a group, ordering one of the a la carte entrees as a shared appetizer begets better results. Consuming the hearty falafel plate or stuffed grape leaves platter as an entree is tough because these dishes are one-note. But eating just one sturdy falafel patty with sublime tahini paste actually is a high note. And while the signature grape leaves don't make much of a statement for Vine Leaves (or perhaps they say it all?), the smorgasbord meze supreme always is a crowd-pleaser.
Entrees are the usual lineup of shish kebabs, kafta and baked lamb shanks Ñ with a few twists. A special of prawns, scallops, salmon and tomatoes wasn't weighed down by a cream sauce; rather, the bold seafood flavors bubbled to the top of a delicate and velvety sauce. Broiled halibut, on the other hand, was as dry and chalky as pebbles on a beach.
Usually a winner in Middle Eastern restaurants, kafta (call it Arabic hamburger if that makes it seem more approachable) doesn't disappoint at Vine Leaves. The ground lamb links are spiked by coriander, cumin and mint, imparting a soft, exotic sweetness. They could stand to come off the broiler a couple of minutes sooner but are otherwise delicious.
The menu lists lamb and beef shish kebabs as broiled to your taste Ñ this is your cue to request the meat medium-rare or risk facing overly charred skewers. Basmati rice or couscous and, for better or worse, mushy mixed vegetables round out the entrees.
Opened in late 2002, Vine Leaves is still young. It's fun to see a restaurant trying on some funky hats when so many new spots seem to follow a textbook recipe for sleeking themselves up and seducing a hip clientele. But Vine Leaves' off-kilter aura would be much more entertaining if the food was a stronger element of the equation. For now, this newcomer is the rare exception to that old maxim, for piece by piece, its parts are greater than the sum.