If you’re like me, visiting a new restaurant is a bit like going on a blind date. You dress up, hold your breath, and hope the experience lives up to your (high) expectations. Often there is a let down. Perhaps it’s a decent place, but the two of you just aren’t a good fit. On occasion, when the spot turns out to be the restaurant equivalent of the date from hell, you vow never to return. And once in a while, things click. You have a great interaction and almost feel giddy thinking about the next opportunity to spend quality time together. That’s the experience I had during my first visit to The Grape Leaf Restaurant and Wine Bar.
The Grape Leaf Restaurant had a soft opening in October and continues to undergo some gentle tweaks. Designers completely revamped the interior of what had once been the old Greek Corner, and in its place they crafted a warm, comfortable spot dressed in an inviting autumn palate. The bistro vibe encompasses some of the best attributes of Italy, Spain, and Argentina, the countries which provide the main influences for the menu. A mix of small and mid-size booths, along with a smattering of pedestal tables, provides seating in a space that feels both intimate and upscale. Gentle flamenco drifted from the speakers during my visits.
No single cuisine dominates The Grape Leaf’s international menu, but inspiration is definitely drawn from Italy and Spain, the historic homes of the chef, Franco Magrini, and the owner, Hugo Gimenez. Hugo’s formative years were in Argentina and Franco’s family lived there when he was young, so it, too, is represented. A variety of pasta dishes and other Italian fare immediately catch the eye, yet other menu headings include Spanish “Tapas” and “Postres” for starters and desserts. Within the Tapas section alone you’ll find Spanish croquetas de jamon, Greek gyros with tzatziki, Middle Eastern falafel, pinchos with Argentine chimichurri, South American empanadas, and Italian dishes such as fried polenta. The remainder of the menu also touches many bases. Even the dessert wine pairings are multinational, with a Hungarian tokaji appearing alongside dulce de leche and a Portuguese port recommended with the arroz con leche.
With such a diverse menu, I knew it would take several visits to sample a variety of dishes. I began by visiting The Grape Leaf for dinner. A friend and I started our meal with the small Plato de Fiambre from the Tapas section of the menu. Although the name in Spanish literally translates as “lunch plate,” the dish was an Italianesque antipasto of cured meats accompanied by fresh mozzarella and – to keep things truly international – a French inspired pate made from chicken livers. Smooth mortadella was counterbalanced by the rustic, coarser textured sopressata. Delicate shavings of Prosciutto di Parma also graced the plate, as did a few bits of tomato. I would have liked another tangy contrast to the rich meats, perhaps some traditional olives or marinated artichoke hearts, both of which are often served as part of an antipasto platter.
My companion’s veal scaloppine was an ample portion of tender, thin veal slices enrobed in a rich sauce of cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The sauce received bulk from hefty chunks of portabella mushroom that added additional meatiness to the dish. Roasted red potatoes filled nearly half the plate, the pile almost completely hiding the mixed vegetables tucked underneath. This was definitely a homey “stick to your ribs” meal rather than a dainty Continental presentation. Plating for all dishes was unpretentious, evoking the feel of dining in a rustic country inn – or perhaps as a dinner guest at a friend’s Italian grandmother’s Sunday table.
I planned to sample one of the many pasta dishes in order to balance out the carne side of the menu. That plan lasted until I heard that the evening’s special was duck with risotto, two menu items that almost always catch my attention. Pasta would have to wait for a later visit. The special was an ample portion of duck breast, seared (a bit too well-done for my taste) then sliced into thick medallions and graced with a bit of pan sauce, served with risotto and mixed vegetables. Risotto is labor intensive and can be tricky to prepare — undercook it and the dish will be gravely, overcook it and the result is mush. My plate of duck was accompanied by a creamy, but still al dente risotto that was one of the best versions I’ve tasted in quite some time. A mélange of zucchini, yellow squash, peppers, and a few delicate asparagus spears completed the presentation.
Pasta still needed to be tasted, so I returned for lunch with the goal of sampling from that side of the menu. Ravioli was the focus of my attention until I was again side-tracked by a special, this time lamb stew. A cup wouldn’t hurt, I thought to myself as I put in a request for a bit of the stew along with an order of meat ravioli. That thought lasted until the “cup” arrived. It impersonated a large bowl, which my server insisted was indeed the small portion. If that’s the case, then it’s likely a small family could be fed from the tureen designated as a “bowl.”
I inhaled the heady aroma of the stew, then dipped my spoon into the thick, fragrant mix of tender lamb and cannellini beans, simmered with a mirepoix of carrot, onion, and celery. A touch of sweetness lingered at the back of my palate, blending into the savory with a mild bite supplied by ginger. A few almonds were in the mix, simmered until soft, adding a firm textural component that complemented the very tender beans and lamb. The recipe reportedly originated with Hugo’s mother, who hailed from Leon, Spain. It’s definitely a keeper — it took effort to keep myself from licking the bottom of the bowl.
After the lamb stew slipped in and stole center stage, the meat ravioli had to work overtime to capture its rightful place. Fortunately, it was up to the challenge. The sauce was described as a marinara, but it resembled a Bolognese — a thick, meaty ragu with bits of carrot and very little tomato. Ravioli pillows were plump with a smooth blend of beef, prosciutto, mortadella, and rich marrow. A bit of Swiss chard on top provided visual and textural contrast. It was delicious, but I couldn’t finish the full portion after inhaling an entire vat of lamb stew.
Chef Franco Magrini told me that his recipe for ravioli, like all of his Italian recipes, was handed down from his mother. His family’s roots lie in Tuscany, but his parents were forced to flee Italy during the Great War. They settled in Bahia Blanco, Argentina, where Franco was born, but the family later returned to their ancestral home. Franco said he was raised in the art capital of Italy, Florence, and he still takes his inspiration from the rich Tuscan cuisine of his homeland.
Many of us dream of spending time under the Tuscan sun, so I couldn’t resist asking Franco a burning question: How did he end up in Alaska?
“I came here 5 years ago — for a woman. We later parted ways. I stayed ….” His voice trailed off. He looked wistful and then a faraway look touched his eye before he vanished back into his kitchen.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Franco’s silver appears to be shining at The Grape Leaf.
The Grape Leaf Restaurant and Wine Bar
302 West Fireweed Lane
Anchorage, Alaska 99503