The Aegean Islands lie between Turkey and Greece (hat tip: Wikipedia), two countries with rich food traditions that, like many cuisines we Americans might dub as ethnic, are underserved in Miami. Like the region it aims to represent, and from which its owners hail, Mandolin Aegean Bistro is nestled between two territories: the Design District and Buena Vista. At 43rd Street and Northeast 2nd Avenue, Mandolin brings together the best of both of those two worlds: stellar cooking that we have come to expect from the Design District and a comfortable, casual, rustic atmosphere like what you’d find at Buena Vista Bistro, its neighbor to the north.
The restaurant itself is a converted 1940′s home that felt like it retained that old layout and architecture. Seating appeared limited indoors but for all I know there may have been an upstairs or other rooms that I didn’t see as I walked through. The real charm, however, is in the backyard, which feels like a dimly lit garden. On a beautiful winter night, it is the perfect setting for a memorable meal, although it may be difficult to read the menu with only a lantern to assist you.
After reading that the restaurant was BYOB for now, I never thought to glance at a wine list, although I later noticed that there were wine bottles lining a shelf inside the restaurant. Perhaps they now have their liquor license so I’ll defer until my second visit in the event that I have any thoughts on the selection (I won’t because I know nothing about Aegean wines).
I began my meal with a Greek Sampler, three dips (smoky eggplant, fish roe, and tzatziki) accompanied by a few pieces of bread that did not appear to be pita. The bread-to-dip ratio was off and would have required a full coating on both sides (perhaps three or four coats like a thin Sherwin Williams paint) to get through the dips. However, the waitstaff was friendly throughout the meal and was at that point more than happy to bring out some pita bread. If I had a blog called Miami’s Dip Power Rankings, I’d rank them as follows: (1) Fish Roe; (2) Smoky Eggplant; (3) Tzatziki. Unfortunately, I could not discern anything about the tzatziki that made it shine compared to other tzatzikis I’ve had before. Perhaps there isn’t much one can do to make a stand-out tzatziki. Yet the fish roe dip was reminiscent of the many smoked salmon dips I’ve had in the past and seemed to improve upon them. It is a dip worth dipping. Lastly, the smoky eggplant was, well, smoky, which is a quality that is hard to recreate at home.
In addition to the Greek Sampler I tried a Turkish Spoon Salad that I ate with a fork (take that). The menu promised some sort of pomegranate component but, even under the glow of my lantern, I could not identify any pomegranate. Rather, it tasted like a perfectly good chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, along with some seasoning. A nice dish but not a new stamp on my culinary passport.
For the entrée, I took the advice of a fellow food blogger, www.gagit.net, who had said he would judge a restaurant such as this by its lamb chops. Much to my great fortune, I happen to be a big fan of these lamb chops of which he speaks, so it took only a quick, off-the-cuff suggestion on his part to get me on board. The menu boasts “perfectly grilled” lamb chops, a tall order no doubt. Needless to say these were some nicely grilled lamb chops and, while I am not able to bestow upon them the title of “perfectly grilled” without a series of blind taste tests and a reality show dedicated to the task, I would say that they had those great grill marks, a nice flavor of the grill, and were cooked to just the right temperature. So I won’t be suing Mandolin for lamb chop libel (truth be told, I don’t think I’d have standing).
Unfortunately, the rice pilaf alongside the lamb chop lacked seasoning (a little salt would have been preferred to bring some additional flavor) but this is just a minor quibble at best, not a material breach.
Last but not least, Mandolin was offering a single dessert, take it or leave it. I took it. The chocolate cake, as the waitress simply yet adequately described it, had some Turkish influence. It had similar flavors to tiramisu but was denser than a typical tiramisu and with more chocolate than one might find in the Italian version. A nice way to end a satisfying meal, along with a small cup of Turkish coffee (note to self: leave the last sip behind; it is just a mouthful of coffee dirt).
Any time I am in the mood for Greek food, Turkish food, or a little of both (I now know I can call this Aegean cuisine), I’ll be headed back to Mandolin. I suggest you do the same.