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The Grapeleaf promises a culinary adventure but delivers a pretty tame trip. 

Global in the Village

The Grapeleaf
7003-A Three Chopt Road
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.;
Dinner Monday-Friday 5:30-9 p.m, Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
673-6739

On the West Coast, where trends begin, the emerging cuisine several years ago was Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cooking. Never on the restaurant fast track, Richmond now has The Grapeleaf in the Village Shopping Center.

The proprietor — who has been clearly in evidence on each of several visits — is a warm and patient tour guide on what, for most of her patrons, will be a culinary adventure.

Beyond the careful blending of spices, Middle Eastern cuisine is labor intensive, built of hands for the hand. Falafel — the vegetarian patties of ground chickpeas and spices — are formed into small, fat pancakes before deep-frying. Kebabs are skewered by hand and stuffed grape leaves are carefully handled, filled and rolled.

In the Middle East the lemon is treasured as are birghil (cracked wheat or bulgur), olive oil, garlic, dates and a certain group of spices — cardamon, cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, nutmeg, saffron and thyme.

Despite the exotic flavors, my visits to the Grapeleaf have been pleasant but ordinary. I strongly recommend the appetizer platter. If this is your introduction to Middle Eastern cuisine, order this and a glass of wine and call it dinner.

The platter ($11) held four plump stuffed grape leaves, two falfafel patties, a generous portion of hummus and babaghanouge (the dipping paste made of grilled eggplant and tahini), fatayer, kebbe and a salad-size portion of tabboule. This gives your tastebuds a quick tour of just about all the Grapeleaf has to offer. If you are doubtful about where your deeper interests might lie, start here and then choose entrees.

If we had taken this advice, we'd have ordered full servings of kebbe and fatayer. Kebbe is a complex preparation in which shells of fragrant crushed wheat and spiced ground beef are stuffed with more beef enriched eloquently by pinenuts and onions. We loved the nutty flavors and robust texture.

Lebanese "pies" — fatayer — were also charming. The spinach pie resembled a Greek spanikopita but the kishk (cheese) presentation was not fluffy with phyllo but a tender flat bread baked like a miniature pizza.

Artichoke hearts ($3.25) with diced red peppers, scallions and red onions drizzled with a zesty lemon-oil dressing enhanced our pleasure with the richer, heavier starters.

Familiar with Americanized taboulleh, I wasn't fond of the Grapeleaf's version, which was more parsley than bulgur. Nor could I detect a hint of mint. The hummus and babaghanouge were more bland than other versions I've sampled. Equally disappointing was the shawarma ($12.45), marinated beef strips grilled with onions and tomatoes and served with tahini. The beef was tough and stringy and overcooked and flavorless in spite of the promise of a spicy marinade.

We had good success with the falafel ($9.45). Ground chickpeas, dried vegetables and spices are formed into six palm-sized patties and then fried. Falafel is like hummus — you either adore it or you don't — and this was a nice portion of the vegetarian favorite. The patties were perfectly prepared on one visit. On another they were a bit dry.

The mixed grill ($13) offering one skewer each of beef, kafta and shish taouk (chicken) would appear to be a no-fail dish. The seasoning for the meat erred on the bland side. The kafta (a mixture of ground beef, onions and parsley) was by far the star on the platter. My well-traveled dinner companion pointed out that the value isn't the best here. Her mixed grill ($13) of three skewers — four or five bites of meat on each — would not have satisfied her appetite had we not indulged so heartily in the appetizers. Many of the dinner entrees are available at lunch at reduced prices.

The servers are friendly and fast but not well informed about the ingredients and preparation of the dishes — a minus when people are trying to order from a menu of unfamiliar foods.

Our dishes came with little flourish. The falafel were plopped on a bed of lettuce with a ramekin of tahini in the center of the plate and a blob of hummus on the end. The mixed grill came on a bed of bland white rice. The storefront restaurant interior is decidedly simple. Don't expect low lights and tinkling crystal. Do expect an interesting but unexciting culinary
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