- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Like most people I know, I often aspire to eat a little better than I do. More vegetables, smaller portions, local ingredients, that sort of thing. But, of course, life tends to get in the way. It ends up being easier to grab a cheeseburger from a neighborhood joint than finding and preparing a meal from, say, locally grown eggplants.
This apparent gap between my aspirations and actual life leaves plenty of room for my imagination, though. I love to think about some place, some lifestyle, where pleasure and virtue might be married in convenience. Where one can’t but eat from the overwhelming abundance of local greenery. Where the hanging fruits of the season fall on your head the minute you step out the door. Where the tables are always spread wide with food and wine, where the meals stretch on for hours, but no one is ever overserved.
If you were to choose a name for such an imaginary place, I’d say Mediterranea is a pretty good one. Isn’t that what we imagine folks are doing on some island off the coast of Italy or Greece? Nibbling on vegetables and sipping on wine and living happily for a hundred years in the sun? This is the name of a new Grant Park restaurant, a place that, at least for me, evokes a kind of aspirational mood.
Mediterranea is set into an old brick building just two short blocks from the entrance to the rolling greenery of Grant Park. It is, no doubt, a convenient, walkable location from the rows of historic houses that line these streets. The first-floor dining room is high ceilinged and airy. To the right, a cafe counter and bar to drop in for a cup of coffee to go. To the left, a spacious arrangement of unfussy, comfortable tables. (A more mercenary restaurateur would have tried to fit twice as many tables in here.)
Up the staircase is the path to, perhaps, Mediterranea’s greatest asset. The rooftop dining area here is not notable for a grand view but for a charming mood. On a recent weeknight, when we arrived at the last minutes of twilight, I found myself immediately relaxed by the neighboring green trees, the light breeze. It is a place that I would gladly dine for hours.
If you grab one of these seats, the waitress will no doubt inform you, as she did us, that the restaurant is fully gluten-free, even including gluten-free beer. Though, she did add, they do offer a few beers in the traditional style, as well. This is, I imagine, some great comfort to diners with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, to not have to worry over ordering the wrong thing. On the other hand, I’d say one of the more impressive accomplishments of Mediterranea’s menu is that it doesn’t seem to even consider wheat a possibility. If the server had not mentioned it, I might not even have noticed that it wasn’t there.
The options, instead, are abundant with vegetables. No doubt you should start with something from the shared plates, spreads and crudites or pickled antipasti, which will arrive in long, sectional plates perfect for plucking with your fingers. It is this portion of the meal that I could have dragged out all night, sipping a glass of Barbera del Monferrato and alternating lightly spicy bites of cherry-size Calabrese peppers and petits poivrons, the tiny, sweet teardrop-shaped peppers sometimes known as sweety drops.
The house salad is a pleasant continuation of this simplicity. It is a pleasure to look at: a big bowl full of big, torn leaves of light green bibb lettuce topped with eye-catching shaved watermelon radish. But the flavor is packed mostly in with a generous handful of toasted pistachios and soft sweet onion. Like the view from the roof, it is not a stunner, but undeniably pleasant, the kind of dish that is impossible to feel bad about eating.
The entrees at Mediterranea are not quite as flawless, though they do give plenty of pleasure. A plate of branzino and orzo features fillets of fish pan-fried to a notable golden-brown crisp. A plate of involtini, here interpreted as thin slices of squash and zucchini wrapped around halloumi, is a fine showcase of that dense, satisfying cheese. Both, though, suffer from a too-subtle approach to flavor and, especially, acid. A big pinch of salt and squeeze of lemon went a long way to brighten up the branzino, but the orzo tasted of little more than, well, olive oil. It was good, but I longed for, say, a pesto of fresh herbs or preserved lemon sauce to make it sing. Likewise, the involtini wanted to be more crisp than it was, the accompanying pepper sauces more reduced and concentrated.
The other weekend, I made brunch plans with a buddy for a Sunday morning. He planned to hit the gym, I intended to pick up some vegetables at the Grant Park Farmers Market, and we would meet on the sunny roof of Mediterranea and bask in the sun, living the lifestyle that a place like Mediterranea might help one aspire to. As it happened, the rain poured down, which canceled my farmers market plans, convinced my buddy to sleep in rather than hit the gym, and, of course, closed the rooftop seating at Mediterranea. Of course, you can’t blame a restaurant for the rain, but Mediterranea is a place about more than what’s on the plate.
We met instead in the first-floor dining room, and instead of our healthy goals, we ordered a round of bloody marys and an extra plate of home fries with our meal. He had the almond milk risotto porridge, and I got a plate of green shakshuka, eggs poached in a dense tangle of dark, braised greens with a pleasant splash of garlic-spiked yogurt. Even if you’re trying to indulge, the menu here steers you back to wholesome pleasures. We both enjoyed the meal, and certainly the house-made hot sauce, a dark green, powerful concoction our waitress said the chef is calling “James Brown.” It did the trick on those potatoes, for sure. Maybe it wasn’t the meal we had aspired to, but such is life. The Mediterranea we imagine is maybe impossible to find, but the real one is still quite good.