If you are craving hot, sunny weather and food to match, I have a new restaurant to share with you, tucked away in Harpenden. The Vine Leaves is owned by Firas and Emile who used to be head and senior chef at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor. The Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant is already a huge hit with the locals, who love the delicious fresh food and Knightsbridge-trained service.
I went on a busy Friday lunchtime, and the large windows onto the street were open, with tables full on the pavement and patio. You can watch the chefs working while you eat at rustic-style tables, and people kept popping in to say hello to the team. I love this style of food and it is done incredibly well here. You have to try the mutabal which is a Syrian aubergine dip, a little like babaganoush; it was incredibly more-ish. Kibbeli mousil, a starter on the lunch set menu, is a new dish to me so I thought I would try it, and it was fab; imagine very thin pancakes made from cracked wheat and stuffed with meat sauce. It is very popular in Lebanon and Iraq and is delicate with a gentle flavour of allspice. Side salads were super-fresh and piled with fresh herbs and pomegranate. Make sure you order some of the home-made pickles; the tiny plums are amazing!
I also tried the Baghdad-style vine leaves which are hand-made by Susan, Firas’s wife. They were totally unlike any stuffed vine leaves I have eaten before and were again delicate and packed with flavour. And I haven’t mentioned the falafel yet which were the BEST I have ever eaten. Emile brought them over straight from the kitchen so they were super-crunchy, almost painfully hot, but soft and melting inside. I would go back just for these.
You could just eat very well just from the starter dishes, but the most popular dish with the other diners on the day I went were the giant salads with chermoula cod and harissa salmon. You could also choose panéed goat’s cheese, grilled halloumi, spiced lamb and grilled chicken. I must mention the halloumi which is made twice-weekly by Shadi in Watford; it was so lovely. There are heartier tagines more suited for evenings and cold days; I will go back to try the seven vegetables one. Meat comes from R & M Butchers just around the corner. Other local suppliers include Dizzy Bee granola on the breakfast menu.
I must mention the puds which Firas explained were influenced by his friend Claire Clarke MBE who he worked with at Harvey Nicks. I am sure you have heard of Claire Clarke from Claridges and the legendary The French Laundry, where she is behind some of the best-ever cake and pud menus. I asked for a tasting plate and wow – just wow. The rose custard with Turkish delight and pistachios is incredible. Firas was very keen for me to try a little piece of the walnut baklava with orange blossom syrup, which they are very proud of and I can totally recommend that too. There is always a gluten-free pud, which make sense as Middle Eastern nut-based cakes work so well. I’m running out of space but the drinks menu is thoughtful with Camden Town beers, good juices, and a wine list that includes Yarden from Israel.
With the team influenced by food they love from Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Armenia with European influences, it is a total treat to eat here. Order something new to you, go with a few friends to share, and I am sure you will have a fabulous time without having to travel far away.
The Vine Leaves, Vaughan Road, Harpenden
T: 1582 760749