Being entrusted with a legacy is no small weight. When Joel Wabeke and Sarah Wepman bought Marie Catrib’s from the late owner’s son, they knew they were entering a sacred space.
Offering many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free offerings simply because of the nature of Lebanese cuisine, Marie Catrib’s became a neighborhood icon in Grand Rapids’ East Hills. It was a place where patrons were on a first-name basis with staff and vice versa. In fact, Catrib herself knew Wabeke, Wepman and their son from visits to the deli.
With the Catrib family out of the business, Wabeke knew he couldn’t keep running the same restaurant. And so, after about eight months, Kingfisher Restaurant and Deli was born.
When you walk in, you’ll notice something is different, but it’s not like someone took a wrecking ball to the place. There’s new paint, new chairs, refinished tabletops and a polished floor — that’s about it. The colors are welcoming and comfortable, with robin egg blue walls and soft wooden furniture setting the mood.
“It feels warm, but also nice. It’s not arrogant, it’s thoughtful,” Wabeke said. “I think people come and they feel like they can enjoy themselves in this kind of space. There’s some activity, there are lots of big windows, and the colors are soothing with the blue.”
Of course, Wabeke and Wepman have experience creating spaces, previously opening That Early Bird Cafe in Eastown and Little Bird in Downtown. When it comes to filling shoes, Early Bird was the couple’s first experience, taking over what was previously Kava House — Little Bird replaced Fat Johnny’s Cheesesteak, which maybe didn’t carry the same onus. Both spots seem to be thriving however, setting Kingfisher up for success.
Creating an approachable neighborhood restaurant comes easy to Wabeke.
“Gaia Cafe was my first love of cooking,” he said. “Even after working at fine dining restaurants, I still love making those — I say ‘healthy-ish,’ everyday food that’s for everyone. We’ve got a menu tailored for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free people. We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t just include substitutes for meat.”
It’s true, Kingfisher draws from the Mediterranean inspiration of Marie Catrib’s, which means going in on the vegetables, hummus and naturally gluten-free ingredients rather than fake “meats” or synthesized substitutes.
Though the influence is clear, the menu is more than just Mediterranean. Wabeke said they didn’t want to “pigeonhole ourselves into something that would limit us.” Choices span from breakfast dishes like an herbed frittata ($10) with spinach, kale, chickpea, mint, parsley, chermoula, tahini sweet potato puree, and toast — to lunch options like the chicken salad sandwich ($10) with tumeric-garlic mayonnaise, pickled golden raisins, pine nuts, lettuce and celery on focaccia.
Wabeke is a chef by trade, and together with Head Chef Rich Van Eck, the menu has become somewhat eclectic yet approachable. Or, in other words: The food is interesting and delicious.
Personally, I tried the lamb ragu ($13), which perfectly encapsulates the “healthy-ish” mentality. To start with, the warm hummus is a revelation. I’m not saying to pop your Sabra container in the microwave, but this stuff should be in far more dishes across far more restaurants. It’s comforting, light and hearty all at once.
Then you top that with yogurt-braised lamb and the ragu sauce, which is a fusion of Italian and Mediterranean that’s both delightful and initially mystifying. I’m not great at geography, so my brain wondered: What is this? Why does this work so well? Then I remembered that Italy — despite having its own unique cuisine — is largely in the Mediterranean Sea, and it all made sense.
Throughout the dish are chopped greens and charred eggplant (that’s the “healthy”) which lift the dish texturally, giving small bursts of new flavor with every few bites. That’s all brought together with sofrito, a sunny egg for when you need that yolk-splosion, and mint and pine nuts to top it all off. Then you have this incredible fluffy, crusty bread (that’s the “ish”) to mop it all up and make sure there’s no way you go home hungry.
By the end of the meal, I can tell Kingfisher is already creating its own legacy.
Kingfisher wanted to start serving the area as fast as it could, so the deli isn’t quite open yet, but it shouldn’t be long now. The goal is to create a place where people can swing by and grab some lunch to go. The deli likely will offer various wraps, rolls, soups and salads, “things of that nature,” Wabeke said. There also may be some bowls and sandwiches that are easy to assemble and warm up quickly, but aren’t lacking any flavor.
Of course, Wabeke and Wepman’s other ventures also have become well-known for their amazing pastry selection, and the deli will be no different.
Drinks are coming soon too, but at both the deli and the restaurant side, everyone is welcome, including families and children. When managing his eateries, Wabeke takes a simple, “What’s right, what’s not?” approach. The goal is to make people happy and comfortable while making memories and connections. Kingfisher is no exception.
“We’re just really trying to curate spaces that people enjoy being in,” Wabeke said.
Photo by Alyson Caillaud-Jones / KAYO LLC.