Dining options at Valley Plaza have changed radically in recent years. In the food court, Five Guys took over from Tommie’s, Ike’s moved into Subway and Hot Dog on a Stick, a chain getting down to its last sausages due to financial stress, went away. Que Pasa closed its restaurant near Red Robin, with a Just Wing It going into that space set to open soon, there are at least three juice places other than Jamba Juice and no fewer than three Wetzel’s Pretzels locations.

Blaze Pizza, It's Boba Time and Texas Roadhouse went into a new building where the old Sears Auto Repair was located, joined now by Panini Kabob Grill, a small chain specializing in “healthier Mediterranean Food” according to their logo.

I thought it was a takeout place and was waiting to review it until Buddy Chicken opens in the food court in the old Schlotzsky’s space, but after visiting realized it deserves its own column. It’s a breakfast, lunch and dinner sit-down restaurant with enough class to satisfy as a date restaurant. The menu is diverse and it promises all the food is made from scratch, all meats raised without hormones, and vegetables and fruits are delivered fresh every day. There are 11 restaurants in the Southland already, most in the Los Angeles area, and 16 more coming soon.

I can understand the growth after visiting. My companion ordered the lamb kebab with a Greek salad and bulgur pilaf ($19.99) while I selected the flat iron steak kebab with basmati rice and a Caesar salad ($15.99), and we also sampled a cup of the vegetarian lentil soup ($2.99) and for dessert the banana bread pudding ($7.99). From start to finish, the skill of the kitchen was evident and the quality of the ingredients used really set the place apart from the competition.

It started with my companion’s green lentil soup, served with a piece of dry, grilled bread. It was a true vegetarian creation made with a vegetarian broth, red onions, garlic, tomatoes and enough mint to taste it but not too much to overwhelm all the other flavors. Fresh vegetables are such a delight when combined artistically, which is what happens here, and we will be back for that chicken vegetable soup made with free-range chicken.

The entrées were similarly impressive, basted and fire grilled with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers, the meat so tender my companion immediately declared it the best lamb she ever had. I wasn’t ready to go that far, but I was quite pleased with the tenderness and flavor of my beef chunks, expecting with a flat iron steak a bit more al dente resistance but getting none of that. I like that some of the veggies and meat were just a bit charred — not enough to destroy or impair the taste or texture, but enough to confirm that fire was used in the cooking.

It’s all the little details in the kitchen where they just do it right. For example, the Caesar salad was tossed with the perfect amount of dressing — not too much to wilt and overwhelm, not too little to be bland. The fresh grated Parmesan and house-made croutons were the perfect finishing touches. My companion’s salad had a nice mix of veggies, including Kalamata olives, cucumber, purple onions, tomato, a nice variety of greens and feta cheese, with a perfectly light vinaigrette. They weren’t phoning in anything on the plate.

For dessert, the banana bread pudding was different. I was expecting bread pudding made with banana bread, but got a bread pudding with some banana slices mixed in, a bit of caramel sauce, a pair of small vanilla ice cream soups on top and a version that was not cloying or overly eggy as some bread puddings can be. In a word, it was thoughtful, with a large boysenberry and a few slices of fresh strawberry as a garnish.

Of course not all is great. There are no draft beers available, only four in bottles, and the wines are priced a tad on the high side — L.A. prices really. The patio looks inviting but the view of the parking lot is not alluring. On the positive side, the interior with its natural wood walls and lots of photos and tile floors complete with an exhibition kitchen looks a lot classier than you expect from the outside. TV presence is minimal as is background noise, so it’s very friendly to conversations.

I must also mention a lot of the family meals they’re promoting, including a breakfast platter for three or four people ($19.99) that includes all sorts of breakfast staples and can be customized to be healthier with options like tofu, skewered broccoli or roasted chicken. Another special they’re touting is a family dinner of kebabs for $34.99 that includes choices of rice or salad. From the breakfast menu, the steak and eggs with all sorts of grilled vegetables on top ($13.99), banana bread pudding French toast ($9.99), and the five wraps, paninis and sandwiches will be the most intriguing.

Service was quite polished from our waiter Hunter, a young man who seems to know how to be hospitable without being a nuisance.

Panini Kabob Grill can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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