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Restaurant review: The Vine Leaves, Harpenden

PUBLISHED: 12:03 05 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:03 05 February 2018

Mezza plate for one served on a miniature wooden table (photo: Brian Arnopp Images)

Mezza plate for one served on a miniature wooden table (photo: Brian Arnopp Images)

Brian Arnopp Images

A family-run Harpenden Mediterrannean restaurant leaves food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne smiling

Should Hertfordshire Life add a category for Best Dessert to this year’s Food and Drink Awards line-up, there’s already a contender. Rose custard with Turkish delight and pistachios has established itself as a favourite at the Vine Leaves, a new-ish restaurant in Harpenden, and certainly deserves a wider audience. Nor is it alone. Other goodies on the puddings menu on the evening I visited included baked walnut baklava with vanilla ice cream and orange blossom syrup, meringue with winter spiced berries and citrus cream, and figs and caramel cheesecake.

A friend recommended the restaurant for a review because it was fresh on the scene and different, though not alone, in offering Mediterranean cuisine. That term is wide and can mean Turkish (current favourite among those in the know), long-time front-runner Greek, or even up-and-coming Israeli mixed with Arab influences (think Yotam Ottolenghi). The common theme is simplicity and checking out the Vine Leaves’ menu reinforced the point. It was manageable, unlike some with which I’ve grappled recently, and the dishes were comfortably familiar – eight starters and six mains, with spiced lamb, spiced chicken and grilled fish prominent – but with just enough of the exotic to lift them out of the ordinary.

The chief difference between this and similar sources was the appearance of four tagines, a traditional dish that comes in various permutations and which I would have ordered but for the fact I was a bit tagined-out following a recent visit to Morocco. Choices at the Vine Leaves were the standard seven-vegetable dish with variations featuring spiced pulled pork, spiced chicken or king prawns cooked in north African spices. If you’ve not had one, or are in the mood for another, it’s good value at around £13.

The whole operation is in the hands of former Harvey Nichols head chef Firas Khafadji, who leads the kitchen brigade, and his wife Anu, who looks after front of house. Both were on hand for our visit and, though we were meeting for the first time, greeted us as old friends. The warm welcome, already evident when I phoned to book a table, lasted throughout the meal, carried on by both waitresses on duty. Again in contrast to some places I had been recently, the waitresses smiled as they answered our questions about the food and the restaurant, living up to the website’s promise to deliver a ‘delightfully relaxed dining experience’.

Spiced chicken with jewelled vegetable rice (photo: Brian Arnopp Images) Spiced chicken with jewelled vegetable rice (photo: Brian Arnopp Images)

For starters, we went traditional with my choice of the Vine Leaves mezza plate for one (£5.95, main image) – an excellent introduction, with the expected bite-sized portions of baba ganoush, falafel, hummus and potato salad enlivened by the addition of a beetroot dish with pomegranate. My companion, saving herself for the main course, settled for homemade hummus (£6.95), plain with flatbread, although other options have it with spiced lamb, king prawns or pulled pork. A bit of an expert on the dish, she accorded this one full marks. Other tempting-looking starters included spiced kofte with harissa yoghurt, crab cake and apple slaw, leek and mushroom tart and grilled plain halloumi or black fennel halloumi.

Our mains equally lived up to expectations. I chose harissa salmon (£13.95) with crushed new potatoes, apricot, olives and spinach because I like unusual combinations of ingredients and this mix worked well, lifting the dish. My other half’s choice of spiced chicken with jewelled vegetable rice (£12.45, right) might sound ordinary but went beyond, to her pronounced satisfaction.

Other temptations among the main courses, though appearing less adventurous, included a spiced lamb burger or a roast pepper and akkawi cheese burger, both with sweet potato chips; grilled seabass with pearl barley with raisins and roasted red pepper; and baked courgette stuffed with vegetables, couscous and melted cheese. There is also a choice of salads. The desserts, as discussed above, were worthy conclusions to the meal.

Unusually, you can also have breakfast at the restaurant, with Firas and Anu promising a choice from ‘healthy granola, energy-filled eggs or an indulgent Full English with a twist’. There is also a lunch service featuring salads, freshly-made wraps and some of the speciality dishes, with special deals on weekdays and takeaway available.

The Vine Leaves, Harpenden (photo: Brian Arnopp Images) The Vine Leaves, Harpenden (photo: Brian Arnopp Images)

We found the Vine Leaves fun, warm, welcoming, different and good value. We are clearly not alone in our enthusiasm as the restaurant hosts private functions for up to 50 people, covering events such as anniversaries, birthdays or office parties, two of which were in progress on the evening of our visit. There is also an at-home catering service, while a programme of special events also helps to keep the pot bubbling with the likes of wine tastings, gin evenings and cocktail master classes. Details are on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

The cost of this meal for two was £46.80 plus tip.

This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

3 OF A KIND

Richard chooses three more Mediterranean restaurants in Herts well worth a visit

The Grapevine

14 Leys Avenue, Letchworth SG6 3EU. 01462 677522

A busy introductory menu with 11 cold and 12 hot starters, 12 mains, seven Turkish thin base pizzas, five pides (or pittas) and five vegetarian dishes, plus mezze platters 
for sharing.

Skewd Kitchen

12 Cockfosters Parade, Barnet EN4 0BX. 020 8449 7771

Bright and busy diner-style restaurant with interesting and lengthy menu including beetroot tarator among starters and a signature lamb shish heading the mains list.

Likya Ocabasi

49 Shenley Road, Borehamwood WD6 1AE. 020 8207 1755

Noted for large portions and a wide range of kebabs as well as adventurous starters including sigara böregi (cheese and spinach rolls) and well-reviewed falafel.

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