Mapping the Mediterranean at the Grape Leaf

Quick! Can you find the Mediterranean Sea on a map?

This should be easy. It’s that long body of water that stretches from the Straits of Gibraltar at the far end of Spain, all the way over past Italy and Greece, the long belly of Turkey, around the corner past Syria, Lebanon and Israel to Egypt, then back west along the coast Northern Africa until we get to Gibraltar again.

Who doesn’t know the Med? Steeped in history and culture, it goes all the way back to the Odyssey and the Iliad; the poet Homer’s “wine-dark sea” that the Romans empirically declared “Mare Nostrum,” “our sea.” Yeah. That Mediterranean. A metaphorical sea that’s filled shore to shore with history, culture and very good food.

But riddle me this: When we look over the menu at just about any metro restaurant that bills its fare as “Mediterranean,” it seems to be using a different map. An appetizing culinary mashup of Greek gyros, Turkish hummus, Lebanese tabbouleh, Syrian pita bread, Iranian kebab skewers and khoresh stews and falafel, the chickpea treat that even Palestinians and Israelis can agree to like.
That’s quite a geographical stretch, and curiously, despite the specificity of the name, it’s only partially congruent with our map of the Mediterranean. What’s up with that?

Here, let me show you what I mean. Wandering the neighborhood in search of brunch one recent Sunday, we wandered into The Grape Leaf, an amiable neighborhood spot where we hadn’t been for a while. Well suited to the purpose at hand, it bills itself “a friendly, locally owned, Pan-Mediterranean neighborhood restaurant.”

A Frankfort Avenue landmark for more than 20 years now, the Grape Leaf has earned a faithful following, attracted by its comfortable quarters and, for sure, Chef Nabil Al-Saba’s authentic if multi-ethnic bill of fare.

It does have a brunch menu, too, with about eight items ranging in price from $5 (for two eggs, any style, with rosemary potatoes) to $14.50 (for a thoroughly international platter of eggs Rothschild with a filet mignon or lamb kabob, greek-style pita, two poached eggs, tzatziki sauce and rosemary potatoes, a brunch that will surely last you until Monday morning).

Our plans for brunch vaporized, though, when we examined the rest of the menu and focused in on some of the more, er, Southwest Asian/Middle Eastern/Levantine items on the main menu.

It takes a while to read it all, with about 16 apps, soups and salads plus more than two dozen entrees — about 10 of them tagged as vegetarian — come with your choice of one side dish (plus $2 for another), and are priced from $8.50 (for a falafel sandwich) or $9 (for a gyros with your choice of traditional beef-lamb mix, leg-of-lamb or “Chicago-style” chicken) to $18 (for lamb chops). That’s just the lunch menu, too. The dinner menu is a little more extensive, with pricing about the same, a dollar or two more for slightly larger portions of some some items.

A cup of lentil soup (included as a side with a lunch main dish) made a warming, comforting starter on a brisk winter afternoon. Thick and pale tan, it came out steaming. wafting up scents of cumin and topped with a sprinkle of smoky purple sumac, the classic Persian spice. Made from red lentils, I think, it was blended into a purée that made my mouth and tummy happy.

Kufta, a ground-lamb dish that you’ll find anywhere from the Med’s eastern shores through the Arab countries to Iran, is fashioned into three rounds the size of smallish sausages. It’s $11.50 at lunch, $13.25 at dinner, for a plate with accompaniments and a side.
The server said it was halal meat, prepared in accordance with Q’uranic law. The happy consequence of this for non-Muslims is the good news that it’s not industrial meat, not pumped with hormones or antibiotics, and presumably from an animal that was humanely treated. Well, until its last day, anyway, but still. Like local-farm lamb, it boasted a good texture and bold meat flavor accented by parsley and mint, which compensated a bit for its rather dry character and boring sides, tiny store-bought pita wedges and bland saffron cauliflower basmati rice very little cauliflower in the mix. A dollop of creamy tzatziki scented with plenty of dill did win thumbs-up.

Babronia ($9.25 for lunch, $12.50 at dinner), a meatless ethnic dish that reminded me more than a little of Egyptian ful medames, with kidney beans and oversize limas subbed for the traditional fava beans. It was basically a bean stew in a shallow dish, simmered with quartered slices of zucchini, summer squash and carrots and sliced mushrooms swimming in a thick brown sauce that breathes cumin and a hint of cayenne, dusted with sumac and plated with pita wedges. It was good, heavy, and gained extra flavor interest from the dollop of tzatziki sauce.

We thought about finishing up with a slice of baklava or a medjool date cooke, but suddenly remembered that the Comfy Cow is next door. Never mind! Our hearty lunch or brunch came to a doable $22, plus a $6 tip.