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Tabbuli Grill lures with a beachy vibe and Mediterranean fare

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Situated at the tip of the Market, steps away from the cruise ship disembarkation point, Tabbuli Grill is designed to be a tourist magnet. Hundreds and hundreds of vacationers walk by it every day, and plenty of them will easily be lured in, drawn to the open-air dining and tropical vibe of the palm trees and greenery on the outdoor patio.

It may cater to out-of-towners, but the laid-back, informal setting of this cabana-like restaurant is also a perfect spot for locals to hang out with friends, enjoy the fresh air, and share some appetizers. The food is mostly Mediterranean — think hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, and pita — with an eclectic raw bar selection and some burgers and club sandwiches thrown in the mix.

The Mediterranean portion of the menu starts with a generous serving of classic hummus ($6), which arrives in the center of a large plate, surrounded by warm pita points, a couple of olives, and a parsley garnish. The consistency is pleasantly creamy and the garlic and lemon notes are spot on. Equally good choices are the hummus with chickpeas and toasted pine nuts ($7) or the hummus topped with seasoned beef and pine nuts ($8).

The Mediterranean dip ($8) is a refreshing purée of well-seasoned tomatoes, cucumbers, and roasted red peppers served with toasted pita points, while the ceviche ($9) consists of the fresh catch of the day (shrimp on my most recent visit) piled into a martini glass with diced tomatoes and cilantro, garnished with julienned carrots, cucumber, and, of course, a toasted pita point.

All of those are good, but Tabbuli shines even more brightly with the not-so-typical appetizers. Four lamb meatballs ($10) are large, succulent, and bursting with flavor. They sit atop crispy, golden-fried pita points and are covered with a sweet sauce infused with za'tar — an herb and spice blend that includes thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. The very pleasing ahi tuna poke ($12) is created with chopped raw tuna marinated in a chili soy glaze with ginger aioli and crowned with a fresh tangle of cucumber salad and spirals of crisp wonton ribbons.

The bar at Tabbuli offers a number of fancy cocktails to accompany the tapas-style appetizers. X-Rated lemonade ($8) is crafted from a pink, fruity French vodka that has been infused with blood oranges, mangoes, and passion fruit, then mixed with housemade lemonade. The bracing Far East Apple Cocktail ($8) is a blend of Absolut Orient Apple vodka, ginger, apple, and cranberry juices topped with splashes of ginger ale and lime juice.

Sitting outside on the beautiful patio with a few cocktails and a table full of appetizers was definitely the high point of each of my visits. While the drinks and appetizers sparkle, the entrées could be buffed up. As one would expect at a Mediterranean restaurant, pita bread can be filled with your choice of beef, lamb, shrimp, chicken, falafel, kofta, or gyro. The pitas are topped with caramelized peppers and onions, lettuce, cucumber, and tomatoes, and tahini or tzatziki. Moderately sized, they are served with a handful of seasoned fries. I tried kofta (ground beef and lamb) and gyro ($9 each). They were decent, but didn't wow me. In both cases the meat was a bit dry and there was very little sauce.

The three pizzas available all sound great on paper, but the crust disappoints. The veggie pizza ($8) is topped with crispy fried artichokes, tomato, red onion, frisée, feta, and pine nuts. The pita crust was wildly uneven: some parts were soft and some hard and blackened. The toppings were enjoyed by using a fork and bypassing the crust. On my initial visit I thought this may be a fluke, but the same crust was under the shrimp and pesto pizza on my next one. So, back to the fork.

This being the Market, the menu hedges its bets, offering some basic American fare too. There's a grilled chicken club ($8) and three burgers ($8) to choose from; each comes with fries. The Market Burger is topped with melted cheddar, a fried egg, lettuce, and tomato. Expecting to find the traditional runny yolk, I was surprised by a nearly scrambled egg. The bun was firm enough to hold all the juices from the beef, had there been any. After a few bites of the dry, under-seasoned burger I went back to enjoying a Mediterranean staple, the hummus.

Tabbuli offers a couple of desserts, including baklava and panna cotta, but our server enthusiastically recommended the Frangelico Fosters ($6). A few pieces of large banana come with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, fried pita dusted with cinnamon sugar, and a Frangelico caramel sauce. It sounded great, but when it arrived, we dove in with caution, as one of the pieces of banana was nearly black. As we worked around the banana our server came by and mentioned that bananas are sweeter when they are black and that she always lets her bananas turn black before she eats them. While I certainly agree with allowing the skin of a banana to darken before using the soft fruit for baking, I'm confused as to why anyone would serve a large slice of black banana flesh. If anything, the story gave us a chuckle, although the more appropriate move would've been to offer us a new dish with properly ripened bananas.

If each visit had concluded after drinks and appetizers, I would've been 100 percent satisfied. The patio is one of the nicest in Charleston, the service is good, the prices are friendly, and the fine tapas and drinks are well worth sampling. Tabbuli would play better by dropping the burgers and chicken club and staying true to Mediterranean cuisine. As it is, without a little refining in the entrée department, Tabbuli is not the place to impress a date by taking them there for a full meal, but if you are searching for a spot to meet co-workers and friends after work, I recommend you check it out.

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