At last, some happy news from the Middle East. Real-good in real-time colorful, nutritious, well-seasoned, authentic Lebanese food (with multiple vegetarian options) at a simple little place tucked beside Olive Garden on U.S. 15-501.
A cool oasis on a hot day, quiet enough for conversation, parking at the door, and many lunches south of 10 bucks.
Genial Lebanese-born owner-chef Michael Alojeil calls his cafe Grape Leaf Bistro, serving “Mediterranean” cuisine, which sounds more user-friendly. But he doesn’t mean pizza and pasta, although his cheese pie with a sesame sauce seasoned with sumac and crumbled feta on a grilled pita is borderline fabulous. Rather, the menu is built on dishes common to Greek (like dolmades, stuffed grape leaves), Israeli (falafel: chick pea patties), Turkish, Lebanese and other Eastern Med cuisines.
Admittedly, I’m a falafel-and-fattoush kinda gal, which comes from living in Montreal, where the substantial Lebanese population operates a huge supermarket like no other, with a 40-foot cheese service counter, 10-foot fresh herbs section, fresh fish on ice, cut-to-order meats, fairytale pastries and deli take-out. Also many small spots where you select pita stuffings cafeteria-style. Alojeil isn’t that elaborate, but he gets four stars for scratch-made shawarma –chicken and beef sliced thin, marinated, affixed to a rotating spindle, roasted for hours, shaved off for sandwiches, similar to Greek gyros but, Alojeil insists, better.
I had to laugh when he compared falafel (patties made from ground chick peas and favas, then fried) to hush puppies.
His kabobs threaded with beef, lamb or jumbo shrimp served with rice pilaf, roasted veggies, salad and pita (beer and wine, if you like) rival downtown hot spots for dinner — and mimic Greek brochetteries found in Northeastern cities.
I hate to gush, but honestly, Southern Pines needed something different, and this is it. Alojeil’s homemade hummus has a silky texture as does the mild, never bitter baba ganoush (pureed eggplant). Almost everything is made daily in house because there aren’t many wholesale suppliers in this neck of the piney woods.
Alojeil emigrated as a teenager, to study business. Since the mid-1980s he has lived in Robeson and Hoke counties, operating Michael’s in Pembroke (now closed) and The Mill at Puppy Creek in Raeford.
“I was going to retire but you get so bored, I couldn’t stay still.” He like the location, a former yogurt bar: “It was small and attractive. Here I could cook the (labor-intensive) things I wanted to cook, going back to my roots. I cook with a passion.” Alojeil limited decorations to huge posters of historic Lebanese sites and picked a name that sounded familiar. But would he find clientele in this burgers/tacos/nuggets market?
“As we progress in the 21st century, the younger generation is liking to try something different,” Alojeil says. He sees a growing ethnic population, retirees from urban areas, and, of course, the military who have deployed to the Middle East. Add the cross-fit mavens who gravitate to veggies, olive oil, lean meat and fiber.
The bistro has been open almost a year, a critical milestone. Regulars get it. Lunch buddies Betty Lou Stewart (from New Jersey) and Tammy Von Gunten (from New York), both familiar with Lebanese dishes, “were thrilled” to discover Grape Leaf the first week it opened. They support Alojeil’s effort by returning often.
Making friends with any out-of-the-ordinary food is a process, an exploration. Moore County has done well with Thai and Mexican. Don’t stop there, when kafta (ground beef and lamb balls), mojaddara (lentils and rice) and shawarma are yet to discover. Because, when it comes to the contentious Middle East, we needn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com
Grape Leaf Bistro, next to Olive Garden on U.S. 5-501 in Southern Pines, is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and to 10 p.m. on Saturday. Closed Sunday. See their menu at GrapeLeafBistro.com. For take-out; Call 910-246-2468