THE DINING REPORT – Mediterranean Exploration Company

Where Israel is no father away than the Pearl (Oye Vey!)

IMG_4294As many people who have read my blog know, I love John Gorham’s restaurants. Toro Bravo has been in my top five since it opened, and Tasty N’ Alder moved way up on my list the first time I ate there. It was with much interest I watched the headlines for the opening of the Mediterranean Exploration Company in the summer of 2014. For one thing, any John Gorham restaurant opening strikes me as definite cause for celebration. Couple this with the fact that his new place was introducing a selection of food from Eastern Mediterranean locales little explored here, places like Israel, Turkey, Morocco and Greece, how could a Portland foodie not be excited? We have a small amount of Middle Eastern food in Portland, largely represented by Lebanese, but as far as countries like Israel and Turkey, we just do not get that kind of food here, and the main Moroccan spot is the rather goofy Marakkesh. We have our Greek places, but none is a standout. Levant has an unusual menu that touches on these regions, and is generally recommended, but I haven’t eaten there, as it’s another place that makes it really hard to take a group, especially on the weekends.

This was my second dinner “back from the brink”, and interestingly, except for two carry-overs from LeVieux, a totally different group from last time out. IMG_4278It was so nice to see Heidi and Julian again, I had not seen them since late Summer of 2014, and Hank has changed from a toddler into a pretty adorable “little man” in that time frame. I had a couple of newcomers at the table, Wendy, whom I had met at a Portland Food Adventures dinner a couple of years ago, and Greg, a potential fellow hiker who conveniently (and expensively) now lives in the Pearl. Both appeared to have a good time. And speaking of the Pearl, also in attendance, Michael, my first ever RR member, and a veteran Pearl dweller. We also welcomed old friends Sylvie and Harvey, Glenda, my stalwart, and old pros David and Shuhong. Later you will hear (read??) from Wendy, who I asked to do a guest review for me, as she is both a really experienced group diner and a contributor to examiner.com where she often writes about food and fitness (Wendy is also the “voice” behind walking.com.)

IMG_4287As for the physical surroundings you find in MEC (the abbreviation I will now call the before-mentioned restaurant) I was in this space a couple of years ago when it was Riffles NW (a quality establishment I was sorry to see go) and the feeling at MEC is pretty similar, a comfortable combination of industrial, modern and utilitarian, although the large tasty looking display of oysters on ice is gone, as well as the tasteful nautical decor. With the large, multi-pane windows looking out on the old, renovated buildings in this part of the Pearl, this a a good place for a meal almost anytime of the year when it is light enough to see outside, and as is usual with a Gorham restaurant, the vibe is lively, and packed, and loud. As a general rule, people are almost overjoyed just to get a seat in any of John Gorham’s restaurants on a weekend evening, so how could they not seem like they are having a really good time eating in his establishments?

As I mentioned earlier, this dinner we had a special guest (although really, I consider anyway who attends one of my dinners “special”) Wendy Bumgardner, who not only has a sometimes food column, and a walking blog, but is also a veteran group diner, as she appears to attend virtually every dinner event that PFA holds. IMG_4285When I met Wendy a couple of years ago she came across as not only really knowledgeable about the local food scene, but as a really nice person too, with quite the boisterous laugh. Although she wasn’t able to attend a dinner before our group went on its long hiatus, she expressed enthusiasm when I revived RR, so I was really happy to have her sample one of my dinners. I ask her to provide some guest commentary, because let’s face it, I’m getting really literarily lame. Here’s what Wendy had to say about our evening at MEC …

IMG_4284I joined the Restaurant Roulette group for a trip to John Gorham’s Mediterranean Exploration Company on Feb. 28.  Previously, I went to a preview dinner there the week before they opened with Portland Food Adventures. That meal was fantastic and left me eager to return, but I hadn’t put together a return visit on my own. I quickly responded to Jackie’s email blast to get on the RSVP list.

MEC is a minimally designed/industrial space as so many Portland restaurants are nowadays, with plenty of space for shared tables. We were slotted in from 5:30 – 7:30. I was the last arrival at a couple of minutes past 5:30, and joined the friendly table of 12. I believe I had only met Jackie previously, but everyone was very welcoming.

The menu at MEC is quite long, filled with small plates and some larger plates that are meant to be shared. A few of us were familiar with the Israeli/Mid-Eastern menu but this is a cuisine that many haven’t tried in depth. It takes a bit of familiarization to navigate the menu and make choices. Luckily, I had noted what I loved best on my first visit but only got a couple bites of due to the shared plates.

Jackie provides each of us a form to fill out with what we order so we can keep track for the final bill. That relieves some of the stress of group dinners that are not a set menu. In the case of MEC and Toro Bravo (Gorham’s original restaurant), the best bet for a group may be to go with their Chef’s Choice dinner for a set price. At MEC, that would be $40. My previous experience at Toro Bravo was that this ensured we got a large selection of food  that seemed to keep coming until we yelled “uncle!”

IMG_4291I ordered the fresh housemade pita with sauces, fried cauliflower and lamb ragu accompanied by a Breakside beer. The pita and bread plates arrived swiftly. Jackie had ordered the wonderful radicchio salad (which is quite large) and soon everyone was sharing dishes as they arrived. That is one of the features of a group meal that I enjoy, although it is not what everyone likes. I like to sample lots of different dishes. MEC is a good choice for vegetarians with many meatless dishes, all wonderfully flavorful.

I enjoyed the conversation with the group, although MEC is quite noisy and it can be hard to hear. The servers have quite a job at MEC to get everything right, especially for a larger group. As we neared 7 pm, my lamb ragu never materialized although I had kept watch for it in case it was delivered to the other end of the table. I pointed this out to the server and asked it be removed from the bill, as by this point we were all plenty full.

Our ordering notes came in useful as there were some inaccuracies in the bill when it arrived. I always bring enough cash to group dinners as so often they don’t want to break out the tab on multiple cards.

It was a fun evening and I look forward to joining with the group again.

Thanks for the help Wendy, as I generally need all the help I can get.

Although Glenda was only mildly enthused about the dinner (you know, the sharing thing) several of my regulars told me they thought the dinner was one of our best ever. IMG_4305Well, we’ve had some really good ones over the years (including a couple of decadent meals at Ox and and a really delicious evening at Tasty N Alder) but people like David and Heidi and Julian were really impressed by how flavorful the food was, and in true Gorham style, many of the meat preparations were incredible (hand it to the ex-butcher to know what cuts of meat to buy and how best to prepare them).

This was probably the dinner when I had the most bites of things I did not order, as basically everyone at the table got in the spirit of trying to locate their dish when it was plopped down “wherever” on the table, taking a bite or two for themselves, then handing it on down the length of the table, often with only an empty plate coming back in return. IMG_4300There was so much food floating around though, that it was impossible not to get full, even if you only had a couple of bites of what you actually ordered, and it was a testament to the diversity of the menu at MEC that even non-meat eaters like Heidi had more than enough to eat from the passing plates.

IMG_4301I guess at a psuedo-middle eastern restaurant that isn’t too surprising, as Lebanese cooking in particular is a vegetarian paradise, but Gorham has gone full-tilt with authenticity here, even totally banning pork from the menu. A good example of this is the beef bacon wrapped dates, which I tried at a later happy hour, and because of the wonderful, smoky flavor of the beef bacon, I must say I liked them even better than the signature pork bacon wrapped dates at Toro Bravo.

Anyway, as Wendy mentioned, this was an evening of massive food sampling. Sometimes with the larger groups, we are given at least one server, and in this case we had an established waitress and someone in training.IMG_4295 Both were very willing to answer the multitude of questions we had on what really amounted to a foreign menu full of somewhat unusual foodstuffs for these parts, and to listen to a lot of very dubious pronunciations. Once we got all of that out of our systems (questions and mangling names) as is typical at a Gorham joint, the food started to come fast and furious. This was good, because two hours really is not much time for 12 people to have cocktails and consume a vast array of small plates, and as Wendy mentioned, some never even made it to our table (I think two items were cancelled as they ran too far behind the rest of the food, and everyone was full from eating everyone else’s food, and our table lease was ticking toward expiration and we were worried we might be booted out. As it happens, we ran over, time-wise, but it was never suggested that we hurry and leave,)

IMG_4292Lebanese Lamb Tartare “Kibbeh” – Hmm, raw lamb. I don’t even like cooked lamb, because of that “gamey” flavor, and because they are just too darned cute. And eating something that baas, just not for me. Somehow I did get a bite down my throat, however, and I must say, decent quality raw lamb is much milder than cooked lamb any day. That being said, I still don’t want to eat it. I might get fleece in my throat.

Warm Castelvetrano Olives – Nothing to say, except they are the prettiest olives I know, color-wise.

Sheep’s Milk Feta – Product of baa-er

IMG_4293Shalosh (roasted eggplant; beet, yogurt, zater; pumpkin carrot – this was a really popular item at our table, almost like a mini mezza sampler. The roasted eggplant was some of the best I have tried, so smoky. The pumpkin carrot dip was quite delicious too.

House Made Lebneh (fried cauliflower)

Falafel One of the few regional specialties everyone knew how to pronounce.

IMG_4286Radicchio (cherries, parsley, yogurt dressing)- Each Gorham restaurant has their own version of these gigantic, mild radicchio salads, each slightly different. As they are always so large, I took a plateful and passed it around. Everyone thought it was delicious. My favorite still remains the radicchio salad at Tasty N’ Alder, with its creamy dressing and hard boiled egg and lardon components. No lardons here, they aren’t kosher.

Braised Greek Greens – Incredibly tasty for braised greens!

Crab Fried “Bourekas”

Fried Anchovies – These were mine, and similar to the fried sardines at Toro Bravo. These were very mild, and people who were afraid of fishy, salty anchovies thought they were pretty good.

Ktzitzot “Israeli Meatballs”

Israeli Pita and S’hug (the one thing no one could pronounce).

Phyllo Chard Hand Pie

Mackerel (beet olive salsa)

IMG_4299Youvetsi (baked orzo, beef ragu) – A tasty sort of casserole affair, with a very pronounced fennel flavor. Probably the tastiest orzo preparation I have had.

Grilled Octopus (piquillo pepper, dill)

Hanger Steak (caper, garlic) – Very good, but surpassed by the beef below.

IMG_4298Skirt Steak Souvlaki (marinated onions, tzatziki) – This was my choice, and it was so incredibly delicious, I actually dream of it to this day. Skirt Steak is obviously a relatively pedestrian cut of beef, but in this case the combination of perfect spicing, light char, and surprising tenderness made this humble hunk of protein as good as any $50 Filet or Rib Eye.

IMG_4302Levant Chicken Kebab – Another pedestrian item that I would normally put near the bottom of my to order list, especially since what Middle Eastern restaurant doesn’t have a chicken kabob? Julian decided to try it though, and after he had a couple bites insisted I needed to try it as well. Sure enough, this was most certainly the best grilled chicken kabob I have ever had, charred, zesty, juicy, and so tender. The chicken kabob to put all other chicken kabobs to shame (even if it shares the same name as a competing restaurant of the same genre).

IMG_4311As the joint was hopping all evening (or until 7:30ish when we left our table) this wasn’t the easiest dinner to have any conversation with anyone, even the person sitting beside you or across from you, but by-and-large it was an excellent outing, and a good example of what large Restaurant Roulette dinners tend to be like (in other words, full of food and fun, blah, blah, blah). IMG_4307Although it is usually not too bad figuring out everyone’s bill at the end, largely because we employ my “dine don’t dash” slips, the bill was somewhat messed-up at the end, one reason we left the table late. One problem was that extra drinks were unintentionally added to the tab, but luckily someone noticed and this was subtracted. I also seem to remember that at least one food item that was ordered but never delivered was not deleted from the bill, but all this was eventually fixed by the waitress. IMG_4279This still left us about $20-30 short, which made me think that a couple of people forgot an item or two, which I know no one ever does intentionally, but it’s not that hard to forget something when people are ordering such a large array of small plates. This is especially true at one of these sharing places, sometimes you don’t even see the food you ordered until it is practically gobbled up, especially since it might have been placed at the other end of the table, and no one is sure who it belongs to, but it sure does look tasty. Anyway, several of us ended up chipping in a few extra bucks to cover the bill, but I felt sort of bad, because I think the waitress(es) ended up with la tip of ess than 18%, which many restaurants consider (and spell out on the menu as being) mandatory with any large crazy bunch over 6. That was certainly us on this evening, a large, crazy bunch over 6.

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