Space: the falafel frontier 

Menu, dining room expanded at Mediterrano Café

Menu, dining room expanded at Mediterrano Café
Strip-mall international restaurants aren’t exactly known for being spacious destinations on the cusp of style and gastronomic innovation. Indeed, if you were one of the regulars at Mediterrano prior to their late-summer renovation, you’d remember the dim, claustrophobic setting where diners at the lunch buffet fought to serve themselves kabobs and baba ghanooj over the heads of fellow patrons.
The rather summery sounding Fesenjoon ($13.95) contained utterly tender chicken stewed in a puree of walnuts and pomegranates.
But if you’ve dropped by in the last few months, you’ve likely been delighted at the newly remodeled and expanded dining room. Earthy mustard yellow walls with cocoa brown accents and colorful glass pendant lights have replaced sterile white walls and functional lighting, making this a distinctly more inviting environment. No longer do you have to languish in a line or elbow your way in to enjoy one of the best Middle Eastern meals in town. Not only has the restaurant doubled its number of tables, taking over the adjacent storefront, but it’s extended its buffet by almost three times, allowing customers to enjoy an even wider variety of lamb and chicken stews, vegetarian specialties, tasty salads and rich desserts. It’s one of the freshest, most diverse buffets of any sort in the city, and at $7.95, it’s a steal. Prices are equally good in the evening, and the menu has been renovated a bit as well, allowing for more dishes reflecting the Persian heritage of owners Abdul and Parvin Irani. As the name Mediterrano suggests, the menu emphasizes familiar Greek and Mediterranean standards such as mosaka and spanakopita. While these dishes are excellent, a more adventurous culinary journey can be had by ordering some of the less typical dishes on the specials menu. Aim for the harder to pronounce entrees. You won’t go wrong. Thankfully, the menu describes each item vividly, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, often quite unusual ingredients such as dried lime and apricots. Lunchtime service leaves diners on their own. You pay, get a plate and paper cup, and off you go. At night, however, an efficient staff generally ensures a much more elegant and leisurely meal. The night we dropped in, a silver teapot arrived, a wee tumbler dangling from its spout. Straightforward but deeply flavorful Persian tea steamed inside. Things were definitely looking up. For an appetizer, the falafel ($5.95) offered both surprisingly light, crispy chickpea patties with a nice herbal overtone as well as creamy hommous with a wealth of tahini. Accompanying our entrees, crisp greens and plenty of feta constituted a small but tasty Greek salad, and the cracked wheat soup, a house favorite, mingled humble bulghur with split peas, lentils and aromatic herbs in a lemony tomato base. Off the specials menu, we chose two of the newer items offered since the expansion. A pair of lamb dishes seemed quite similar, but Ghormeh Sabzi ($12.95) came with kidney beans in a dark broth redolent of herbs and the exotic tang of dried key limes. The rather summery sounding Fesenjoon ($13.95) contained utterly tender chicken stewed in a puree of walnuts and pomegranates, the latter adding an almost jammy sweetness that bordered on cloying. Both came with bowls of hot basmati rice crowned with luminous saffron. This made for easy sharing of entrees — and a nice contrast between sweet and tart flavors. Among desserts, the menu lists just rice pudding and baklava (which Mediterrano claims was voted Indy’s best). But we inquired about the coconut cake ($3.95) we’d had at the lunch buffet, and Abdul produced a weighty slab of this half-cake, half-pudding concoction dusted with pistachios. The baklava ($2.95) paled a bit in contrast, but the phyllo was tender and the walnut filling neither too dry nor syrupy sweet. While last year saw a number of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants open in all quadrants of the city, Mediterrano is nearing the 10-year mark in its current location. Additional space has meant that more diners can appreciate just how consistently good the restaurant has been in that decade. Perhaps more exciting is the fact that Abdul and Parvin, after introducing diners to so many now-common dishes, can pull back from the waters of the Mediterranean and finally cook the foods of their homeland, the hearty, aromatic stews available almost nowhere else in town.
Mediterrano Café 5941 E. 86th St. 595-0399 Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10 p.m. Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Food: 4 stars Atmosphere: 3 1/2 stars Service: 2 1/2 stars

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