The Mediterranean Sea is mythical — from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the cradle of democracy in classical Greece, the rise of the Roman Empire and the shift of Christianity east to Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Mediterranean remains an ever popular lure for tourists on cruise ships following the paths of ancient mariners.
One joy of such excursions is to sample the authentic cuisine of Greece and Turkey. Or you can take your sweet patootie down to 2nd St. N. to Mio’s Grill and Cafe, former home of Meze 119. It’s there that two cousins of Turkish-Greek heritage proudly welcome guests to share the cuisine of their youth. Mio, it turns out, is not the warm, smiling chef-owner (that’s Bora) but a handsome boxer dog who waits patiently at home while his master whips up Mediterranean treats.
The charming interior is filled with colorful, glistening Turkish mosaic lamps, which lend plenty of atmosphere and serve to support a regal photo of Mio on the beach, which Bora proudly displays to the inquisitive diners pondering the origin of the cafe’s name.
We opt for the cold appetizer platter to sample some Mediterranean classics. Both the tzatziki and hummus are clearly superior to commercial products. Or at least different. The textures are less homogenized, so the cucumber and garlic stand out in the former, and there’s extra mint and an olive oil drizzle garnish. The hummus balances the tahini with some chunky bits of chickpeas plus grace notes of garlic and the brightness of freshly-squeezed lemon. In addition to golden pita squares, there are a pair of cucumber slices and a trio of rice-stuffed grape leaves. These are fine; if you’ve had them before, you’re either a fan or not.
We also can’t resist the homemade vegan red lentil soup, which is an authentic best seller. It’s a very pleasant bowl and despite its vegan roots, which means there’s no chicken stock, the flavor is satisfying with a pervasive herbal core. The lentils are well puréed, but the soup is not as viscous as I expected from my encounters with other legume soups, which most often have a bisque-like creamy character. This one’s more reminiscent of a broth-based dish.
The mixed grill features all of the flavorful meats associated with the region. There’s tasty beef and chicken gyro meat, ground lamb meatballs with Mediterranean seasonings (kofte), and tender cubes of marinated chicken kebabs grilled on skewers. There’s a similarity to all the proteins, so don’t expect variety, but if you enjoy gyros, you’ll be very happy.
Mio’s authentic peas’ special with rice pilaf is a disappointment. I didn’t grow up in Turkey, so there’s no emotional attachment here. The pilaf is a simple molded round of long grain rice flavored with olive oil; it doesn’t include the orzo that’s often part of pilaf in the region. But what’s underwhelming to me is the herbed pea and carrot combo with some bits of potato that encircles the rice. The peas are an unappealing gray-green that indicates a canned origin or overcooking. It’s not tasteless; it just holds little allure without some link to a fond memory.
Tiramisu is deliciously homemade, but not in-house. As I’m writing it seems to have disappeared from the menu. The many layered baklava is distinctly Turkish; it’s less spiced and highlights chopped pistachios instead of walnuts. The new menu addition is halva. I’ve had this Middle Eastern treat many times, but always as a sesame confection in a variety of flavors. My mother was a big fan, but I always found it dry and less appealing. Mio’s Turkish version is a semolina halva (irmik helvasi) with vanilla ice cream. It’s a cooked concoction of semolina with sugar, milk, butter, nuts and cinnamon that’s soft, but scoopable. It’s moist, unlike the sesame versions I know, and an interesting expansion of gastronomic knowledge.
The menu also features burgers, sandwiches and paninis for every taste. Even if the study of Homer is an unhappy memory for you from a misguided intro to epic poetry, the siren’s song is calling you to DTSP.
CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.
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