Last summer, Turkish restaurant Alaturka opened on Fifth Avenue. Not long after I finished my last bite of “shawarma,” it closed. In November, Mediterra took its place.
The new owners are the husband and wife team Hilda and Raffi Hampar. The couple, who owned a similar restaurant in Naples, Fla., painted the walls warm beige, edged the room with muted red banquettes and hung lamps with modern cylindrical shades from the ceiling.
As sophisticated as the new space is, the mood is reminiscent of dining at the home of a favorite aunt: cozy and familiar with lots of stops at the tables by Hilda, who works the front of the 30-seat house.
“How is the lamb? Do you like the lamb?” she asks. The menu she created reflects an “out of my kitchen and onto your plate” sensibility. Which is fine. Who doesn’t love a home-cooked meal?
To stay competitive on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue — which is already saturated with good restaurants, including a couple of fine Middle Eastern places — the kitchen, where Raffi is at the stove, will have to raise the bar a bit. More assertive seasoning would be welcome in some of the dishes I tried. And, while I appreciate simple plating, lamb chops that arrive with the bones encased in aluminum foil screams diner fare.
Another touch that was endearing in its guilelessness is the inclusion of the dishes’ origins on the restaurant’s popular brunch menu. Among some enticing plates are the “tomato, brie and goat cheese tarte,” inspired by one of Martha Stewart’s recipes, and the “German apple pancake” that is attributed to the Barefoot Contessa. Chefs mine one another for ideas; few acknowledge it on the menu as a point of pride.
I poured wine for my sister and me (there’s a BYOB policy — with no corkage fee — until the owners receive their wine license) and perused the short menu. The lone, efficient and friendly waiter dropped a small pail filled with thick slices of smoky, crisp, grilled French bread on the table. They were terrific with the appetizer “meze” (small dishes); on their own, they cried out for a dish of good olive oil.
Hampar describes the cuisine as “Mediterranean,” but in this case, that word is rather broad. There are a few dishes that support her description: a salad of roasted beets and goat cheese, salmon en papillote (the fish cooked in parchment paper with shallots, capers, dill and lemon) as well as an excellent version of the impossible to escape tiramisu. However, the majority of the dishes include traditional Middle Eastern offerings like hummus and falafel, moussaka (layers of eggplant, ground lamb and bechamel sauce), and baklava for dessert.
The “meze” sampler included three appetizer choices. The best were the long, cigar-shaped “crispy phyllo rolls” filled with creamy, tangy feta cheese. Little discs of falafel were moister than others I’ve tried. The croquettes were enjoyable on their own, and even better after a dunk in the mild sesame-flavored tahini sauce. While the vegetables in the “eggplant Mediterra” were tender and the roasted tomatoes rich, the stew needed a hit of salt and a tart note to come to life.
The same is true for otherwise well made “dolmades.” While the leaves that wrapped around a rich, meaty filling of ground lamb and rice were tender and complemented by a splash of light tomato sauce, the dish needed more salt and a few lemon wedges to brighten the flavor.
The chef employed an imported “orzo” (rice-shaped pasta) that provided a fluffy bed for an ample entree of large, sweet, grilled shrimp. Again, more salt was called for. And in this case, the shrimp needed a brush of oil not to appear naked on the plate.
Even with their tacky metallic leggings, I’d give the lamb chops a second chance. The meat had a pleasant mineral note helped along by a good dose of peppery, fresh oregano. I also liked the tartly dressed mix of greens that accompanied the chops.
At Mediterra, the tiramisu is pleasingly light, with moist layers of sponge cake and a subtle note of espresso. The two house-made Turkish confections — “tel kadayif,” a heart-shaped pastry made of crunchy, shredded dough filled with cinnamon-scented walnuts, and “baklava,” layers of phyllo slathered with nuts and honey — were as pleasing as the tiramisu and a better choice to follow the meze and entrees.
The restaurant is almost three months old. Hopefully, once the chef has his first baby steps behind him and hits his stride, he’ll season the fare with a stronger hand. Until then, ask for a dish of lemons, and enjoy being among “family.”
Mediterra (381 Fifth Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $14-$20. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, from Tuesday to Sunday. Brunch is available on weekends. Closed Mondays. Subway: F to Fourth Avenue. www.mediterra parkslope.com. For more information, call (718) 360-4622.