As much as we enjoy fine dining, we also take particular pleasure in finding a small ethnic restaurant that stands out. South Grand is Restaurant Row for candidates these days, and we have a(nother) winner. The Vine Mediterranean Cafe and Market offers lots of hits and very few misses.
Yes, there's a market next door (and when it's cold, a sign encourages you to use its door for entry, to keep cold drafts from freezing those diners sitting near the cafe entrance), with lots of interesting groceries and halal meat. In addition, the contents of bakery and deli cases serve as coming attractions for taking extra fun home for tomorrow. Things are often hopping, even early in the week, and many customers seem to be regulars.
Like so many of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, the Lebanese food featured at the Vine offers lots of appetizer-type dishes, which means those who enjoy the small-plates style of dining will be pleased. For example, hummus is pale and silky-smooth, tasting of the sesame butter called tahina, and a little lemon. It arrived together with the baba ganough (their spelling), and for a moment we thought there were two plates of hummus. Easily the palest version of the eggplant spread that we've ever had, it absolutely sparkled, showing off plenty of lemon and garlic and a note of smokiness from the roasted vegetable. It was absolutely remarkable. Small stuffed grape leaves, each perhaps the size of an index finger, were filled with rice and what seemed to be dill. They, too, were a little tart, a little chewy, each a morsel of tasty, healthy eating. The appetizer platter that contained all this also had some small felafel patties about the size of a silver dollar. Crisp and well-drained, the ground chickpeas' interior stayed moist and gave out the aroma of cumin. And the pita arrived warm and fresh.
This is kebab country, of course, and we tried four kinds, all removed from their skewers and arranged on the plates. Neither the chicken nor the shrimp were overcooked, and the seasoning, zataar, a mixture of sumac and thyme, was well balanced. The other two kebabs began with ground beef. The Mediterranean kebab was seasoned fairly simply, a little onion, salt and pepper. It was good, but the kafta kebab was better. It was more assertively seasoned with garlic, parsley, and a little cumin as well as onion, then rolled inside a slice of pita and grilled. The resulting sandwich was stuffed with tomato, onion, parsley, a drizzle of tahina, a couple of slices of dill pickle and a few crunchy, tart bits of pickled turnip. It was a great pleasure to eat.
The rice served with main courses is fluffy and improved with a sprinkling of scarlet zaatar and also carrying a faint note of cinnamon. It was delicious. Tabouli contained far more parsley than bulghur, its tart dressing not overwhelming the greens, some onion, and – was that a little mint in there, too? We'd heard good things about the fries, but on our visit they were unexciting, despite their shower of zataar.
For dessert, we tried the namoura, a traditional Lebanese cake made of semolina and coconut, bathed in a honey syrup. Firm rather than falling apart as a tres leches cake might, the coconut aroma led the way, and the honey wasn't killer sweet.
As for beverages, there's no alcohol, but excellent Lebanese coffee and tea, along with various kinds of soda and juice. The tea, a generous pot served in a lovely glass, is laced with cardamom. It's what makes the difference in the coffee, too, served in the style most locals know as Greek coffee, made in a small brass pot with a long handle, the grounds dense and the liquid strong. The cardamom is strong enough that it almost eliminates any need for sugar. Both were completely successful and a good companion to the cake and the wintry weather outside.
Hospitality to guests is an Arabic tradition, and while dishes arrived a little haphazardly, the server was warm and attentive, keeping things moving for a number of tables at once. The menu offers enough enticing ideas to encourage a return visit.
3172 South Grand Blvd.
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor