By David Minsky
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In Kitchen Confidential, the gastronomic tell-all that convinced many folks to stop eating out, chef-author Anthony Bourdain lists a few hard-and-fast rules: Never order fish in a restaurant on a Sunday or Monday, because it was probably delivered the previous Thursday. Don't chomp down on bacteria-friendly foodstuffs like hollandaise sauce -- they've most likely been standing out in the culinary equivalent of a petri dish. Forget about asking for your meat well-done or finding a bargain on sushi, unless you want poor-quality fare the chef would otherwise throw out. Bourdain reveals these practices of restaurant kitchens intending not to disgust you (though he does) but to teach you how to order and ensure yourself a good meal.
He forgets to mention one factor, however, when he instructs you on how to assess a potential restaurant repast: religion. Perhaps because he is, as he writes, "the worst kind of atheist." Or perhaps because it simply didn't occur to him to include injunctions like, "Never dine in a Glatt kosher restaurant during Passover because it's probably closed anyway." If he had, we might have known not to request a wine list in Grape Leaves; the restaurant, which our server told us is Muslim, doesn't serve alcohol.
Not that I care about the religious affiliations of Grape Leaves, located in an off-the-beaten-path shopping center in Sunrise. It wouldn't have deterred me had I known beforehand. I simply would have adjusted my expectations and prepared myself for an alcohol-free evening. And I would have thought twice about dining at Grape Leaves during Ramadan.
Running from late November to late December this year, Ramadan is the monthlong Muslim holiday that requires the observant to fast all day until the sun sets. Apparently it's been having an impact upon the restaurant's business. The waitress told us that the local Muslims line up at the door starting at 6 p.m., eagerly awaiting the opening of Grape Leaves for dinner. That makes sense, because they're probably starving by then, and because Grape Leaves serves traditional Middle Eastern favorites like hummus, baba ghannouj, shish kebabs, and falafel.
However, Ramadan seemed to be the restaurant's excuse for why it had run out of a significant number of its menu items the night we dined, a justification I just don't buy. For one thing my party was the only one in the 50-seat eatery. Unless the crowd ate and ran, it seems likely there would have been some lingering tables to justify the lack of some items. For another the server didn't know which dishes had been 86ed until she tried to order them. Then she'd come back to the table to tell us the New York strip steak was not available. And the skewered shrimp. And the jawaneh, garlic-marinated chicken wings that are practically a Lebanese national dish. A performance like this begs the question whether or not the food had ever been on-site in the first place.
Plus, I'm not sure the waitress had her facts straight. She told us Grape Leaves is Pakistani, but in fact it's Lebanese. Chef-proprietor Danny Ahmad, originally from Lebanon, ran his business for 25 years in California before relocating to South Florida. Grape Leaves has been open in its present location for two years.
Nor is the rest of the staff forthcoming. Twice when I phoned for information after I'd dined, a worker, identifying himself only as "George," told me he was the owner, then that he wasn't. Then he said bluntly, "I don't have time for this." Both times he hung up on me. I finally did reach Ahmad, who sounded suspiciously like George, but two seconds into my interview with him, he received a long-distance call on the other line. "Finish quick or call me back," he told me.
I'll finish quick, all right. The restaurant, the pink-and-black geometric tiles of which climb halfway up the walls until they're replaced by peeling pink-striped wallpaper, doesn't seem to have much time for anything, much less interior decorating. We were treated in a fashion so expedient it could teach McDonald's a lesson. Appetizers appeared immediately after we ordered them, along with the too-peppery lentil soup (the alternative to the house salad, a plate of chopped romaine) that accompanies entrées. The waitress was in such a rush she took off after only one person had ordered a main course. Then we had to beckon her back so the rest of us could order. The result was a confused four-course meal that we gobbled in an hour flat.
The forced expediency was a shame, because some items deserved to be savored. The phyllo-dough pies were especially tasty, stuffed with feta cheese and tomatoes. Kibbeh, ground beef mixed with bulgur wheat, shaped into patties, and fried, was hearty and flavorful. You can order both the pies and the kibbeh by the piece rather than the plate, which allows you to save room for main courses like the lamb shanks. Served with stewed summer squash, carrots, and onions, the lamb was tender and succulent and was easily removed from the bone.
Other items, however, needed more attention in the preparation. Starters such as baba ghannouj, eggplant salad that requires the eggplant to be roasted and peeled, tasted charred instead of smoky. Falafel was grainy, with the bean paste lumpy rather than soft and smooth as it should be. We tasted both these preparations on a sampler plate, which fortunately included tart and lemony tabbouleh, supple grape leaves filled with rice, and a slightly salty hummus garnished with olive oil. A separate dish of cacik, cucumber-yogurt salad, was watery. And while pita bread was replenished frequently, we would have been more appreciative if it hadn't appeared to be both store-bought and stale.
Main courses were rather limited given the restaurant's reluctance to stock appropriately. The choices basically came down to salmon topped with sumac-scented onions and pine nuts or a pick of kebabs. The salmon would have been better had it been fresh rather than fishy, and the assortment of kebabs -- lamb, beef, and chicken -- would have pleased if they had been cooked for less time on a cleaner grill. Judging from the tough, burned nuggets, the grill hadn't been scraped since the beginning of, well, Ramadan. The overly potent garlic dip accompanying the meat could keep Pepto-Bismol in business. Basmati rice pilaf, which partnered all the entrées, was nicely fluffy and aromatic but was marred by what looked to be frozen, packaged peas and carrots.
Main courses also come with dessert: a choice of baklava, baklava, or baklava. We enjoyed the nutty pastry, which was neither greasy nor overly drenched in honey. But the Turkish coffee with which we wanted to wash it down was more like half-strength espresso, singularly unimpressive. Indeed, the flavor it deposited on our palates seemed a fitting end, as the entire experience at Grape Leaves has left us with a taste bitter enough it could have been a whole chapter in Kitchen Confidential