I often sing the praises of St Albans - it's a nice place, alright - but actually, a lot of the nearby towns are pretty lovely too. Harpenden is one such town, just one stop further along on the train line, but full of lovely restaurants and pubs (not much else though - I worked there for a few months last year, and my lunch breaks were extremely dull). Much like St Albans, lots of new independent places have been springing up, and I was invited to review one of them recently, The Vine Leaves.
The Vine Leaves serves a carefully selected menu of Middle Eastern food, and was set up by Firas, the former head chef of Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor, so I was pretty excited about trying it out. When I headed down there with Matt a couple of weeks ago, I must confess we were both feeling a bit delicate after a big night out, so I was feeling extra discerning. But actually, I'm so glad we went there for dinner rather than opting for takeaway pizza on the couch - the food was fresh, healthy and full of flavour.
To start, we had the sharing mezza, which included hummus, mutabal (smoked aubergine dip), falafel, olives and pickles which we had along with toasted flat bread and halloumi. I was totally in love with the presentation - look at the cute little picnic table! Practical, too.
Not just adorable though, it was all very tasty. The falafel was one of the best I've ever had - warm, crunchy and packed full of spices I couldn't quite place. I could have happily licked the plate of mutabal clean (but Matt told me not to), and the halloumi was incredible - not overly salty like it can often be, and with an amazing crunch. Everything is locally sourced, and Firas came out and talked to us about where he gets everything. The not-too-salty halloumi, for instance? Not a happy accident, he specifically sought that out.
For my main, I had Chicken Taooq - tabbouleh, hummus, pomegranate molasses and sumac salad on flatbread, and Matt had Jerusalem style sea bass and saffron urzo, along with labna and vine roasted tomatoes. The chicken was incredible, wonderfully tender and full of flavour. I think it had been marinated in spices and then tossed in them before serving, as it was coated in a yummy combination of spices. I loved the different flavours on offer, with the fresh tabbouleh, spicy chicken and creamy hummus, all topped with a scattering of pomegranate seeds. I need to incorporate pomegranate seeds into more of my cooking. I liked the idea of serving it on a flatbread, but it wasn't necessary - the meal was more than filling enough without it, and I wanted to save room for dessert, anyway.
Matt was a big fan of his fish, too - apparently it was a really great fillet, super tender and tasty, and the saffron orzo was really good (I nabbed a bit of that). I need to start getting him to review the things I don't eat properly, don't I? Sorry chaps, not a seafood fan. It looks pretty though, right?
We had our mains with tomato and onion salad, one of my favourite things ever that I order whenever I see it on a menu. The tomatoes were SO sweet - this was up there with the best I've ever had.
We just about squeezed in dessert, even though by this point we weren't remotely hungry. But we were so intrigued by the tahini candy floss that came with the flourless chocolate, almond and hazelnut cake (and I can never ignore salted caramel sauce) that we ordered it to share. It was a great option, as it was pretty light, but really unusual. The tahini candy floss was... weird. Rather like eating feathers. But it was tasty, and I like trying different things, anyway. Everything on the plate went together really well, and despite our full bellies, we soon scraped it clean.
I'd really recommend a trip to The Vine Leaves. Their menu is quite small - there are only four mains, plus three variations of their sharing tagine - but I'm a big fan of that, as I think a lot of menus can be too comprehensive and a bit overwhelming for visitors. I'd rather a restaurant focused on doing a few dishes really well than try to do dozens of dishes half-heartedly, and that's exactly what Firas and his team do. A lot of care had clearly gone into the menu, and what's more, it was really reasonable - around £5/£6 for a starter and £10-£13 for a main. The service was excellent too, even on a busy Saturday night, and we both agreed that it's somewhere we'd love to return to. Definitely worth a visit if you're up this way. Here's the menu, as it's not on their website.
Have you been to The Vine Leaves, or anywhere else amazing lately? Hook me up!