FAIRMONT — Naser Albalwi is the product of the foods of two different cultures.
Hailing from the nation of Jordan, Albalwi moved to the U.S. to attend university but still hungered for the tastes he had in his youth.
“My dad is from Saudi Arabia, my mom is from Jordan,” Albalwi said. “In Jordan, there are more multiple options. I love the food in Saudi Arabia, it’s kind of like meat, rice and that’s it. In Jordan, it’s completely different and that’s the food I grew up with.”
Now living in Fairmont, Albalwi has opened the Grape Leaf, a Mediterranean cafe in downtown Fairmont, where he can provide the people of West Virginia with the recipes he brought with him from his growing up.
“It’s the first restaurant business for both of us,” said Heather Rockwell, co-owner of Grape Leaf and Albalwi’s wife. “I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant, it’s been kind of a dream for me to have a restaurant business.”
The restaurant, located on the corner of Adams Street and Jefferson Street, opened in June with a packed house on its first day. The interior of the restaurant is meant to replicate the look of a typical home in Jordan, with a red and white decal and low sitting couch.
“I married Naser and he took me to Saudi Arabia and Jordan,” Rockwell said. “I just fell in love with the food and the culture and I thought it would be something great for Fairmont. We knew it was filling a void that Fairmont needed; some diversity in food and culture.”
Albalwi added that he didn’t think that there was enough variety in the Fairmont restaurant scene when it came to ethnic options. When he thought back to other places he’s lived, he thought it would be a good idea to bring his food to Fairmont.
“When we moved in here, we missed the options of food,” Albalwi said. “You don’t have the options so before we started thinking about this business we were starting thinking about good food.”
Some of the food Albalwi introduced to the area are baba ghanoush, shawarma and balila soup, which are all dishes that have their origins in the Middle East. The restaurant also has takes on hummus and gyros, which usually come with pita bread, and some special beverages include Turkish coffee and an avocado smoothie.
Albalwi and Rockwell both agreed that they weren’t sure how the people of Fairmont would react to these kinds of menu items, but their attempts at their introductions have been going well so far.
“We were gambling with that,” Albalwi said. “We didn’t know if people would accept the idea or not. Any time you try something new and it has a lot of spice, you don’t know.”
Most dishes at the restaurant cost under $10, with a few special plates going just a little over that price range. Albalwi said the main goal was to try and bring these options to Fairmont, with an emphasis on freshness.
“Money is not our first priority, we just want this business to succeed,” Albalwi said. “We need to add something to the city and then the money will come later. Even with prices we tried to be moderate.”
Rockwell also said that because these types of foods are new to Fairmont, some people aren’t sure what menu items they might like. So the future of the Grape Leaf could hold different sampler plates so people can more easily try everything.
“We’re thinking about adding a sampler because some people haven’t tried everything - haven’t tried anything actually,” Rockwell said. “They want to try a little bit of everything and see what they like so in the future they can get what they like.”
On the topic of the menu, Rockwell also said that she and Albalwi have already added some menu items and will likely add more to accommodate more people’s tastes. So long as they can provide their takes on options and keep it fresh.
“We were really trying to do fresh and kind of healthy,” Rockwell said. “By demand, we did a hero sandwich. We listened to the customers, we want to make them happy and we know a lot of people like that hero sub.”
Seeing the positive response they have earned from the community already, Albalwi said he and Rockwell hope to make the cafe a place of comfort for people, not just to eat at, but to make a place that feels like home
“We definitely want to grow,” Albalwi said. “When I was at WVU I used to go to Panera all the time, I loved the atmosphere. That’s the idea, I want this place to be like that.
“Restaurants aren’t just a place to eat, they can be like a second home.”
The Grape Leaf Cafe is located at 236 Adams St. and is open from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and from 5-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, visit the restaurant’s website at www.thegrapeleafcafe.com, or call 304-534-8026.
Email Eddie Trizzino at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @eddietimeswv.