Photographs by Jeremy Kramer
Remember your first falafel? If you’re like me, it probably came courtesy of your college friends in the vegan co-op, dense chickpea crumbs spilling into the spine of a dog-eared Moosewood Cookbook. I think of that afternoon as one of my first real palate-expanding meals, observing how well mint played within savory dishes and how the humble paring of lemon and oregano could mentally summon up azure water and Bronze Age ruins. Let’s just say I picked a lot of parsley out of my teeth that semester.
It’s a happy curiosity of Middle Eastern food that its flavors, mildly unfamiliar yet lively and approachable, linger so long in your brain after plates are cleared and the last shukrans (thank yous) have been said. Mention tacos or kung pao chicken and you’ll get an opinion. Mention kebabs, börek, and tabbouleh and you’ll likely get sideswiped by an intricate story—perhaps a childhood meal or memory of the spice markets in Istanbul with the wafting smell of sandalwood in the background. Thank Fahri Ozdil that we can stir up those memories in Cincinnati.
With his second location of Café Mediterranean, open since April on Erie Avenue in East Hyde Park, Ozdil lets his culinary guard down. While his flagship location in Blue Ash seems content to churn out safely reliable versions of Middle Eastern classics, his new spot, in the former Ash space, shows his eagerness to showcase a much wider range of flavor. “This food is not a two-page menu,” the exuberant Ozdil jokes. Indeed, the menu, a collaboration with his chef and countryman Tolgahan Gulyiyen, is born of pragmatic business sense—sticking to popular standards and capitalizing on what the kitchen space allows. Still, Ozdil confesses that he’s obsessed with maximizing flavor possibilities. Proof: He drives a box truck to New York City and back a few times a year to pick up spices he insists on sourcing from his native Turkey.
Even the drinks show a command of flavor, and the impeccably courteous staff always seem to the have the right suggestion. One server steered my companion to a luscious 2012 Trullo Riesling, whose slowly blossoming caramel-apple sweetness was a nice counterpoint to the spices that would follow. On one balmy evening on the patio, I was told about the night’s unlikely hero, an absurd sounding yet dazzling house cocktail called the Ayrantini. It’s made from gin, mint, pureed cucumber, and Ayran, a commercially brewed Turkish yogurt drink. As weird as this all sounds, the drink was bittersweet and creamy, and the gentle, vegetal flavors proved a nice lead-in to the lighter appetizers to follow.
Gulyiyen’s by-the-book starters are solid. The baba ghanoush uses seared eggplant, which adds a pleasant smokiness to the final product. The red lentil soup, chalky on one visit, was pitch-perfect on a follow-up, redolent with carrot and onion, and a tickle of cumin. The vegetables atop the Greek salad—cucumber slices, tomato wedges, and thick strips of carrot—were reliably fresh, and a lemony vinaigrette had its requisite zing.
But you’ll quickly see how eager Gulyiyen is to infuse new layers of flavor into familiar dishes. Ozdil jokingly calls his must-try börek a “Turkish Egg Roll,” wrapping spinach, leeks, and goat cheese into phyllo dough, and baking it to brittle flakiness. All of this plays according to Hoyle, but the pastry arrives atop a vivid cherry tomato marmalade, which adds a welcome dimension of barely sweet fruitiness. While there is a smooth, simple hummus on the menu, you should go for the classic sucuklu hummus, which is spiked with sujuk, a common beef sausage popular all over the Middle East. Chunks of the diced meat echoed the flavor of a good Spanish chorizo, but this is spiced with harissa and red pepper, making it a perfect foil for the milder chickpea base. I only wish the house-made bread served with the appetizers had risen properly. It felt gummy and dense, not so good for sopping-up duties.
The entrées are expensive—they start at $14 and steeply climb—but aside from a wan-tasting lamb kebab and undercooked hunks of green pepper and grilled tomato, these higher-priced plates deliver. One friend opted for the spinach pita, a generously portioned flatbread-shaped pie full of spinach, leeks, and feta cheese, richly scented with the nuttiness of charred yeast bread. There is a rotating whole fish special on the menu, and on our visit it was branzino, mildly seasoned with salt and oregano, carefully grilled and served alongside a charred lemon half and a salad. Easily worth a pin bone or two. I made short work of the kuzu incik, a lamb shank braised for hours in onions, carrots, and a bit of tomato sauce. The shank might have benefited from a finishing sear, but this seems like a choice rather than a failure. The tender meat highlighted the balanced presence of herbs: rosemary, thyme, and oregano.
What’s worth mentioning about these entrées is that many a chef might have simply piled the protein on a mound of polenta or pureed spuds and called it a day. But after a meal like that I would have found myself rolling down Erie, knocking out a tony jogger or two as I recovered from my carb coma. Instead, we felt sated, not overfed, and lingered over slow sips of a bracingly strong Turkish coffee.
It’s clear the restaurant is a work in progress. Many elements, like the skillful service and well-conceived menu, are already at full steam ahead, but a few details of execution, mostly from the kitchen, sometimes keep Café Mediterranean stuck in port. It’s frustrating to be stunned by so many memorable bites while other plates are marred by inconsistency. Time will tell if Ozdil and company can hit the flavor heights they’re aiming for.
Café Mediterranean, 3520 Erie Ave., East Hyde Park, (513) 871-8714, cafe-mediterranean.com
Hours Dinner Tues–Thurs 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11, Sun noon–9
Prices $6 (hummus) to $34 (lamb chops)
Credit Cards All major
The Takeaway Chef-driven Middle Eastern cuisine that leans heavily on Turkish tradition. Servers are welcoming, poised, and have a deep understanding of the menu and wine list. Opt for the patio if the weather is amenable.