Epicurious Eating: Luna Grill
Metal and flames
Published Thursday, 20-May-2010 in issue 1169
Attention Fenton Marketplace shoppers. If you skip the microwave food samples at Costco or the questionable Swedish meatballs from Ikea’s cafeteria, a decent plaza meal awaits at Luna Grill, where the herby flavors of the Middle East and Greece leap simultaneously into your mouth from a single plate of kabobs. (The company calls the cuisine “Near East and Mediterranean,” so take your pick.)
Nestled among a few unremarkable chains (Subway, I-Hop and Oggie’s Pizza) at the west end of the plaza, Luna Grill in comparison goes to great lengths for feeding mass consumers fast-casual food that is unprocessed, never-frozen and memorably tasty. All of the meat marinades and salad dressings are homemade and boast discernible flavors of oregano, sumac and turmeric. The poultry is hormone-free and the beef is “all natural” – or at least says Sysco. And that uber-fluffy long-grain basmati rice included with entrees undergoes an extensive de-starching process that takes 24 hours to complete before exiting the kitchen. You can eat a lot of it without distending your belly.
The corporate-owned eatery greets visitors with a shiny, modern look that appears franchised, although it isn’t. Mission Valley marks the second location of Luna Grill, which laid down its roots in 2004 off the 56 Freeway at Torrey Highlands. The color-scheme is distinguished bluntly by bright-red seats and stark-white tables. Brilliant photographs of vegetables hang on the walls, a preface to the fresh, colorful salads that await. Outside, a patio graced with flower boxes looks out to the plaza’s massive parking lot – a reality of 21st Century dining.
The menu begins with a few unique dishes mingled among hummus, falafel, tabouli and baked spanakopita. Fire-roasted tomatoes proved satisfying. Grilled to a supple, juicy texture and finished off with olive oil, the tomatoes are served piping hot, causing the feta on top to soften and turn creamy. We also tried the “French fry crumble,” a mound of good, skinny fries snowed in feta and spiced mildly with oregano. The menu states that lemon is also in the scheme, but to our disappointment we could only taste it when trying. There is also a quesadilla made with gyros from the meat cone and standard Mexican-blend cheese. We passed on it without pause.
The best plate of greens I’ve encountered in months is Luna’s fatoush salad, a Lebanese toss of romaine, cucumber, crispy pita chips, feta, onions and chopped herbs, from which mint takes center stage. Available in lunch or dinner portions, it’s served well-chilled and dressed in clean vinaigrette that escapes the bland, oily pitfalls of prefabricated recipes.
Beautiful, assorted kabobs dominate the menu. They’re prepared with optimum precision, over gentle flames, and on long metal skewers that cook the meat from the inside out as they heat up. The method ultimately retains the meat’s juices without burning off the flavors of marinades and spices.
The Cornish hen kabob was stellar, a succulent little game bird cooked whole on a skewer, then removed and cut up into parts and arranged around white and yellow basmati. Grilled carrots, green salad, pita bread and cucumber-yogurt dip fill out the eye-popping platter, which sells for a fair price of $11.95.
My companion chose a “combination kabob” showcasing a necklace arrangement of lightly seasoned, flash-marinated ground sirloin set alongside a train of deeply marinated chicken tenders – both meats de-skewered and served with the aforementioned entrée accompaniments.
The beef was okay, tasting pretty much like densely packed hamburger. The chicken, however, compares to the blue-ribbon Persian kabobs at Bandar downtown, where the meat is marinated overnight in onions and enough spices to give it an orange-y tint. If you’ve abandoned chicken breast for its predictably bland pith, this might shock you with succulence.
Peeking into the kitchen before leaving, we spied upon a couple of beef tenderloin kabobs sizzling on the grill. The meat was interspersed with peppers and onions, all caramelizing to the licks of low flames and leaving us sure about what we’ll order on the next visit.
Other kabob choices include lamb, tiger shrimp, mahi mahi, salmon and veggie. From the “wraps” category, we came away happy over the seasoned salmon, filled with generous filets, salad elements and a nice aioli-type dressing. The wraps extend also to meat and poultry, and use either whole-wheat lavash bread (our choice) or generic pita.
Luna Grill is among the best examples of simple Greek-Persian food done right. Feta abounds. Herbs are evident. And the meats cook perfectly, harboring enough juices in most cases to dribble down your chin.