The Mediterranean Grill is one of those strip-mall restaurants that can be a blur as you drive by. Slow down and pay attention. This fine new small restaurant is worth bringing into focus.
The strip mall in question is along Chesterfield Airport Road in Chesterfield Valley, an area that superficially appears to be chain-restaurant central. Actually, though, it has a significant variety of good, locally owned independents, with the Mediterranean Grill among them.
The Mediterranean accent on the menu is compliments of Elie Harir, who began the business as a catering operation and opened the restaurant in July. Harir has Israeli roots and knowledge of a range of Mediterranean cuisines. But most important, he has a seasoned hand at spicing, spotlighting the bold flavors of the various styles without overwhelming the underlying ingredients.
His Moroccan meatballs ($13.99), for example, left the flavors of cumin and other warm spices lingering long after each bite of the two large beef meatballs, with potatoes and peas as palate-cleansers when needed.
The warm spice flavors reappeared minus the cumin in lamb with apricots and prunes ($19.99), balancing and complementing the sweetness of the dried fruits but still allowing the textures and flavors of the slow-cooked lamb to be the stars of the plate. The cuts involved were interesting. Braised leg meat yielded the expected shredded texture and rich flavor, but at least one rib chop was also tossed in. I wouldn't have been surprised if the chop meat felt overcooked, but it also retained its expected, firmer texture.
The moistness of the meat also showed up in the meatballs and in a pair of lamb kebabs ($19.99). Even the chicken in a schnitzel platter ($16.99) had an ideal moist texture.
For those wondering, as we did, what the heck schnitzel was doing on a Mediterranean menu, Harir, who personally delivered finished plates several times during our visits, explained that it is one of his favorites — and he's the chef.
Samplers of dips, spreads and salads are listed as appetizers, but be sure to note in advance of ordering that they're complimentary when ordering dinner entrees. These, too, made our personal highlight reel — baba ghanouj that was garlicky but not to the point of biting, beet salad with surprising but satisfying notes of cumin and a relish called matbocha that the menu described as "Moroccan salsa," deftly blending roasted red pepper notes with hot-pepper spicing.
Dinner service is sit-down, but the ambience overall is quite sparse. The beverage cooler and fountain sit in full view of the dining room, providing more of a diner feel than that of a $20-entree place. I'm torn on the need for adding a liquor license; at those prices, you expect to be able to buy some wine, but it was also budget-friendly to be able to brown-bag.
On one visit, a chime that sounded every time the front door opened was turned on, which got old after about the first five repetitions. The choice of background music was also odd; on both of our visits, we were serenaded with a foreign-language choral version of "Silent Night."
The strip mall's entrance, tucked just past a Walgreens at Chesterfield Airport and Long roads, is easy to miss. But to make things worse, both times we visited, the restaurant's sign wasn't illuminated.
One of the best-known natives of Israel once counseled not to hide one's light under a bushel basket, advice that would be fitting for the Mediterranean Grill.Read more: http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/dining/restaurants/reviews/article_6b13c8a6-96d0-5576-a260-0a499daffd1b.html#ixzz1efAUoQKk
"I'm trying to bring to people a different kind of cuisine. Ninety-nine percent use powder from a box. Very few make food from scratch. I'm one of them," he proudly explains.
Harir's journey toward opening the restaurant began in Israel, where he was born and raised. As a child, he would eat Middle Eastern dishes such as couscous, and he fondly remembers his mother's Yemenite Chicken Soup. Although Harir helped his mother in the kitchen, his real introduction into the culinary industry came during his late twenties.
"Things didn't happen for me until around 27 or 28," he says. "I moved to the United States, and I started managing a bagel store in Connecticut. I would make bagels, the ones you cook in water."
While working at the bagel store, Harir developed his recipe for pita. When he moved to St. Louis a few years later, he managed Pita Plus, a small, family-run institution similar to the Mediterranean Grill. He brought his recipes for falafel and pita to Pita Plus, but wanted the challenge of running his own business. Harir started with a catering venture, which he ran from home. However, his ambition soon outweighed his success.
"I decided I needed a real kitchen, to find a small place and work from there." Harir's hard work paid off, as his dream of owning and operating his own restaurant came to fruition. As we followed Harir into the restaurant's kitchen, he greeted his employees with a characteristic friendliness. He urges the photographer to take pictures of not only himself, but also his entire staff, telling us that, "They've worked hard; they deserve some recognition." Harir seasons some couscous, and delicately sprinkles parsley on top of kabobs. Clearly, this is a man with an eye for detail.
"I went to a steak house recently and ate a great rib-eye," he says. "But the rib-eye was the only good part of the meal. The salad and the stuff that went along with it was just so-so. What makes dinner good is what goes along with it. Restaurants don't know how to balance the flavors."
Harir works for a balance in cooking as well as life. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three children and planning for his restaurant's future. His advice for anyone starting a small business combines some of Harir's favorite ingredients: hard work, passion and time.
"Calculate your steps very carefully," he says. "The feeling of wanting a restaurant is a romantic thing, like in the movies. But in reality, it's not. Maybe after five or six years it is. But to start, be prepared to put in the hours. You have to love the kitchen, or it won't work."