The paths to restaurant ownership are many. For Atilla Dilek, owner of The Mediterranean Cuisine, the path started in his home of Malatya, Turkey, famous for its apricots. There, he learned shoe-making and repair, and later became a dental technician. He also worked in restaurants in Istanbul before coming to Rochester in 1995, where he worked as a dental technician before opening Titus Shoe Service. He still runs that business, but now owns a restaurant as well.
Dilek speaks about starting simply, and indeed that is what he's doing. The menu has just five appetizers and six entrées, but the quality is high and the prices are reasonable (some outrageously so). Dilek keeps repeating the importance of focusing on "the taste," and if he can get some customers in to sample it, that focus will serve him and his restaurant well.
Dolma is an Arabic word meaning "stuffed thing," but here and at most area restaurants it means stuffed grape leaves (Dilek points out that sarma, meaning "rolled thing," is more accurate). At The Mediterranean Cuisine, they're homemade (which is rare in town), and delicious, not overwhelmed by saltiness (eight for $4.99). The dolma are vegetarian, but can be made with meat on request. Köfte are marinated beef patties (think flavorful little hamburgers, four for $4.95).
Humus and babaganush are both staples at area Mediterranean spots, and are just exceptional here ($3). The humus tastes like chick peas with tahini rather than the other way around, with strong accents of cumin and garlic. My companions were divided on the babaganush, but it was the best I've had locally, truly tasting like eggplant, with smoky overtones and garlic.
Grilled meats are the focus of the entrées. True shish kebab, which is spiced, ground beef cooked over coals on a steel skewer called a shish, is a staple ($5.50 with salad). Pilav kebab is similar, but served over rice flavored with butter and sumak, which is tart, almost lemony ($6.95).
The Turkish version of the Greek gyro is called döner, layers of minced and sliced lamb cooked on an upright skewer, then shaved into thin pieces. You can get döner kebab with rice pilaf or pita bread for $7.95. But the menu proclaims "the most favorite Turkish kebab" to be iskender kebab, which is döner served over bread with tomato and yogurt sauces ($8.95). I just loved this.
The highlight, though, is pirzola: thin, marinated lamb chops cut from near the spine of the animal. This is just $8.95 for three chops, an amazing price for good lamb. The Mediterranean Cuisine gets all its meats from the Halal Market in the same plaza. When you go to the restaurant, be sure to check this place out as well. It has halal meats (the Islamic version of kosher), as well as various middle-eastern specialty items like Turkish coffee and dried fruits.
All dinners come with a choice of salad. The standard is shredded lettuce with carrot, and sliced onion on the side, served simply with lemon juice and olive oil (both on the table). Shepherd's salad has chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, parsley, and green pepper in a lemon dressing. And ezme is similar but very finely chopped, almost like good tabbouleh without the wheat. All are available as appetizers for $1.75.
Finish up with Turkish coffee if you can handle it ($1.75), and a dessert. Sütlac is a creamy, cold rice pudding. The baklava is homemade and worthy, and the shredded-wheat-based kadayif is outstanding. All desserts are $3.
In Rochester, most Mediterranean restaurants are run either by a Lebanese person (Sinbad's, Oasis), or by Greeks (Olive Tree, Mykonos, Olives). But the food of the Mediterranean is amazingly diverse, and also includes the cuisines of Morocco, Turkey, and Italy (of course). Turkish people rave about their country's food, and finally, we have a Turkish restaurant in town.
The Mediterranean Cuisine is huge and comfortable, and has delicious, inexpensive food, but so far, few customers. Hopefully, that will change and Dilek will continue to expand his menu to include more unusual Turkish foods.
When Dilek served me a fabulous cup of Turkish coffee, he asked a friend, in Turkish, to explain a proverb to me. It went something like, "coffee shared in harmony is remembered for 40 years." I will remember that cup, but I also hope this restaurant is more than a memory in a year or so.
The Mediterranean Cuisine, 295 East Ridge Road, 266-0050. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m.
I had spring fever, so I took a road trip to Watkins Glen and the highly recommended Wildflower Café. After 14 years, chef-owner Doug Thayer satisfied a long-term goal and just released his first beer, Black Walnut Ale. He also makes ice cream, bread, and, of course, the rest of the menu. It's a gem, open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. through evening. Sorry, California wine lovers, only Finger Lakes wines on this wine list. Reservations are helpful (607-535-9797).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Visit his Finger Lakes site at www.SavorLife.com to see photos of the Wildflower Café.