Mediterranean flavors flourish on James Island

Lemon Grove Grill on James Island

The Lemon Grove Grill was brought to my attention by one of our readers. His message was one of “restaurant SOS,” and his concern was customer counts.

Not long after his email, I noticed signage for the Lemon Grove Grill placed on Ashley Phosphate Road. An “awareness” program was in the making for this James Island restaurant.

The Lemon Grove Grill is at the former location of Fort Johnson Cafe and Coffee. It is in the neighborhood of James Island Charter High School and certainly should see a fair share of traffic between the neighborhood proper and its position on a route to Folly Beach.

The interior is spare and short on atmosphere. The ceiling fan says “tropical,” island prints and a sailboat make a nautical claim and a Mediterranean harbor scene is the only indication of the culinary roots of the restaurant. Salmon-colored walls and a long run of banquettes covered in a muted red faux-leather fabric do nothing to invigorate the space with a sense of the Mediterranean.

Traffic was slim at the time of our visit. That worked in the favor of our server, who was learning the menu and made frequent trips to the kitchen to answer diners’ questions, including ours.

Lemon Grove Grill has embraced the “local” mantra and purchases ingredients from Crosby’s Seafood and Limehouse Produce and sources its beef and lamb from an organic provider in North Carolina. It is committed to seasonal cooking.

The kitchen quickly dispenses a loaf of bread; sadly burned on its bottom. The bread was in stark contrast to the tender, warm, fluffy pita triangles served with a trio of dips ($6): char-grilled eggplant puree, hummus and spiced pepper and tomato sauce. The hummus was a bit on the thin side, but freshness was apparent in the flavors of these mezze.

Soups are the kitchen’s strong suit. A puree of red lentil ($3.75) was boldly seasoned, garnished with a few flat leaf parsley leaves and a wedge of lemon and was quite good. A chilled cucumber soup ($3.50) captures the flavors of tzatziki, the yogurt and cucumber accompaniment to many gyros and Greek grilled foods.

A whole artichoke ($6) is offered as an appetizer. It is char-grilled, split and served with your choice of dipping sauces, tarragon or melted butter. Grilling also is the method used to cook a portobello mushroom cap ($6) filled with spinach and topped with mozzarella cheese and plated over a red tomato sauce. Think of it as a vegetable pizza.

The entree menu is balanced with seafood, meat and poultry, as well as three pasta dishes that can be ordered in two portion sizes. The shrimp are local, and grilling is the predominant cooking method for the lamb ($18), steak ($18), chicken ($12) and shrimp ($9, $15).

The signature dish at Lemon Grove Grill is “beyti.” This dish is Turkish in origin and is composed of finely chopped bits of meat formed into long “fingers” that are shaped onto a skewer and grilled. The skewers are placed on warmed pita bread served with grilled tomatoes, peppers and pilaf. The listed “lentil pilaf” was couscous at the time of our visit. This is a tasty dish served with your choice of a garlic-dill sauce or garlic-thyme tomato sauce. Order both and mix to your taste.

The kitchen grinds all of its own meats for the lamb ($8) and beef ($7) burgers and uses custom spice blends for the Mediterranean dishes such as the beyti.

A small lamb shish kebab ($9) was a generous portion of lamb chunks on skewers with tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and onions. The lamb was undercooked, but the cubes were thick. There was little reason for the kitchen to be rushed, yet the cooking seemed distracted. From the burned bread to the undercooked lamb, the grill was not receiving the attention the dishes required.

We were hoping that lemon would be featured some way in the desserts. Not so. Just a New York-style cheesecake that we passed on.

There is potential here at the Lemon Grove Grill. From homemade yogurt to the signature beyti skewers and salads dressed with lemon and olive oil, the healthy Mediterranean diet is embraced by a menu of simple preparations. The obligation is on the kitchen to mind the store.

The property could use a little TLC, but with owners committed to local and seasonal, they can groom it to success and the Lemon Grove Grill will prosper.