On a recent thread about Asian and ethnic markets (http://www.cheftalk.com/forum/thread/59756/hit-the-asian-markyesterday) we were talking about how they often had to be ferreted out; especially in smaller cities and towns. And how they, unfortunately, come and go.
The same can be said for ethnic eateries. They tend to be small, out-of-the-way places, known primarily to members of the ethnic groups involved. Very often, in fact, you find out about the dining places from a notice in one of the markets. Indeed, the restaurants often are part of the market.
Today, while on our weekly shopping trip to Lexington, we discovered that one of our favorite such restaurants had changed hands and directions. The new establishment, tagged the Grape Leaf, is really nice, and we certainly enjoyed our meal. But I thought a break-down of how we came to it in the first place might prove useful to others (are you listening, Skatz?) hoping to uncover similar places.
First some background. There is a Mid-Eastern market called Ali Baba that we use quite often. When it first opened, about two years ago, it included a small lunch counter and tables. The food, in keeping with the market theme, was Mid-Eastern, primarily Lebanese. For some reason, they weren’t making it as a Lebanese restaurant, and changed to food with an Indian theme. Friend Wife doesn’t do Indian, because it’s too spicy for her, so we stopped eating there. Apparently we weren’t the only ones. Indian didn’t work out for them any better than Lebanese, and they’ve closed down the restaurant operation entirely.
Hold that thought.
One of the places we shop is called Parisa’s International Market. “International” is a bit of a stretch, as it’s primarily Indian and Mid-Eastern, with some other eastern Mediterranean and African products.
One day, maybe 18 months ago, there’s a small poster in the window promoting Istanbul Palace; a “Mediterranean” restaurant on the other side of Lexington. Yeah, it was Mediterranean, but with a decidedly Turkish motif. That is the only reference we’ve ever seen to the restaurant. We’ve been eating there about once a month since discovering it. Today was going to be one of those days.
Upon arriving we noticed the “under new management” sign, and the new name. Seems that the old owner wanted to open a restaurant in Louisville (are you listening, Skatz?) and the opportunity presented itself when the new owners made him an offer.
Grape Leaf is still “Mediterranean,” but this time with more of a Greco/Lebanese/Jordanian slant than Turkish. As we’re working our way through the lunch buffet I keep glancing at the cook, who looks very familiar. But I can’t quite place him. When I mention to our server that the food reminds me of when Ali Baba had its original restaurant she broke into a big grin. Pointing towards the kitchen, she says, “he was the cook at Ali Baba.” And another part of the puzzle fell into place.
If anything, the food is even better now than it was under the old name. For one thing, it’s more diverse. Example: Not even counting the salads (of which there were six), the buffet today included a Lebanese lentil soup; falafel; a chicken dish; kibbeh; and two vegetarian dishes. All the food is made fresh daily, our server, Nadjla told us, and the selection varies each day. There’s also a full menu for those who opt not to eat the buffet. All ingredients meet Halal dietary requirements.
One sure sign of the taste and quality: Friend Wife normally wants no part of kibbeh, because it’s both too strong a flavor for her, and two dry. Neither was the case, at today’s lunch, and she enjoyed it immensely. Another key: their garlic sauce was perfect. We’re both garlic-heads, Friend Wife and I. But, frankly, the sauce made by the old owners went a bit overboard---the kind of little thing that can make a big difference.
One unexpected treat is Grape Leaf’s signature pita chips. The pita is rubbed with rosemary and sumac before going in the oven, and makes a perfect scoop for either the hummus or baba ghannouj that are part of the salad bar.
All in all, a pleasant lunch. And we’ll certainly be going back. But, as with the original restaurant, it’s not easy to find on your own. So if you happen to be in Lexington, you can check it out at: The Grape Leaf, 393 Waller Ave. #16, Lexington, KY, 40504, 859-231-1192.