Seduced by the Mandolin

Recently Joanne and I discovered a wonderful Greek-Turkish restaurant in the Design District neighborhood of Miami.

Called MANDOLIN, it’s owned and run by a husband-wife team: Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsiokis – he’s from Turkey, she’s Greek…which is a little odd since their home countries have been at odds for the past several hundred years. Well, I guess love – and a shared passion for Mediterranean cuisine – conquers all.

Joanne and I love the food in this part of the world, and one of our sweet spots in the states has been ESTIATORIO MILOS. A high-end seafood restaurant (that I wrote about early in 2017), Milos began in Montreal, then added locations in New York, Miami Beach, London, Las Vegas, and Athens (becoming – like Nobu – a very fancy chain).

Mandolin has just the one location and is very much a casual dining destination – far more typical of what you’ll actually find in Greece and Turkey, where Joanne and I have enjoyed traveling. Istanbul, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, and a month-long stay in Molyvos, on the island of Lesvos, rank among our favorite trips.

Though the Greeks and Turks are quick to point out all the ways their cuisines differ, the fact is, they’re pretty similar in many ways, including their emphasis on simplicity and freshness. No surprise, considering the culinary comingling that occurred during the 400 years of Ottoman rule over Greece.

You might imagine how pleased we were to come across a locally owned independent restaurant that celebrated the simple, rustic “village cooking” of both Turkey and Greece. Nothing here is contrived. There’s no pretense, no fancy compositions – just straightforward, honest expressions of one of the world’s richest culinary heritages.

Food isn’t the only draw at Mandolin. The restaurant offers comfortable outdoor seating in a big, beautiful, lush garden. In fact, Joanne and I have never eaten inside. And speaking of gardens, the owners grow their own herbs and vegetables just behind the restaurant.

You need to start by ordering either the Turkish Sampler or the Greek Sampler – or both, depending on the size of your party. The Turkish spreads and dips include hummus, an onion-studded tomato-walnut dip, and a beet puree. The Greek version features tzatziki (garlic, cucumber, olive oil and yogurt, spiced with dill) along with melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant puree) and taramasalata, a puree of fish roe, olive oil, lemon juice and grated onions.
Both Samplers are accompanied by a little paper bag of warm, sesame-flecked, just-baked bread.

In addition to a crispy, bitey Arugula Salad, you must try the summery Arugula and Peach Salad with mint, almonds and Manouri goat cheese. It’s rivaled by the Arugula and Date salad, with pistachios and feta cheese dressed in a pomegranate vinaigrette. Someone at your table should also order the traditional horiatiki Greek village salad, made with vine-ripened tomato wedges, cucumber, red onion, green peppers, and Kalamata olives crowned with a plank of feta. Okay, enough about salads.

On to the appetizers. Where to start? Try the Spanakopita – spinach, feta, pine nuts, herbs and spices baked in phyllo ($12). For a little theater, get the Greektown classic, Saganaki, the flaming fried cheese dish usually accompanied by an annoying “OPAH!” The Greeks (and I suppose the Turks) really know octopus, so don’t miss Mandolin’s simply grilled version. Even though it’s usually a main course, we’ve shared Moussaka as an appetizer. A staple of Greek restaurants everywhere, it’s a baked dish of ground lamb, eggplant, thin sliced potatoes, onions, cheese, cinnamon and nutmeg – all topped with a layer of béchamel sauce and browned in the oven.

Among the mains, the Branzino (or European Sea Bass) is a standout. It’s so simple, so beautifully grilled – barely teased with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper – that you’d think it was out of a Martha Stewart cookbook. Actually, a wide variety of Mandolin’s entrees boast the same attributes of simplicity and freshness. Obviously, you MUST order lamb – either the Lamb Chops over orzo pilaf ($46) or the thick chunks of rosemary-laced Saddle of Lamb. Even the Chicken Kebabs, the default dish of timid eaters, are delicious (all the more so when dipped in tzatziki). If you’re a dumpling fan (and who isn’t?), get the Manti, an iconic Turkish dish of homemade egg pasta dumplings filled with minced lamb, garlic and Aleppo peppers, topped with brown butter and garlicky yogurt.

Our grandkids dined on pulled lamb gyros and Mandolin’s signature lamb burger. Both come with fries and will run you $16. The kids devoured them both.

Yes, we had dessert as well.

Isn’t gluttony one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Maybe, but if you were to pass up the desserts here, you’d be guilty of stupidity, so go ahead and get the homemade Baklava. It’s loaded with honey and pistachios…OMG! On the lighter side, Fresh Figs topped with toasted walnuts, thick yogurt and honey are a seasonal must-have. I’d have them in a heartbeat for breakfast as well.

We all ended with super-strong Turkish coffee – even the kids. After they came down off the walls, I think they fell asleep around 4 AM.

So back to Anastasia and Ahmet. I wish them a long life together and hope they run the restaurant well into their golden years. Perhaps the example set by these lovers will prompt their fellow countrymen to cast aside their arms and gather at a table laden with fragrant meats, cheese and vegetables; a powerful reminder of all their respective cultures share (yeah, fat chance).



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