GRAZING: Craving more at Mediterranea

Healthy and happy and gluten-free

MEDIT Salmon Croquette Plate 2271 Web
Photo credit: Cliff Bostock
AT MEDITERRANEA: The salmon croquette plate, available at brunch.

It’s early evening on a weekday and I am parking in front of Mediterranea, a restaurant in Grant Park — my own neighborhood — and I am totally mystified. Nestled in a renovated brick building from the 1920s, it has been open two years, but I’ve never noticed it. I get out of my car. A man on a bicycle races up and down the street behind a frantic chihuahua. A couple comes out of the restaurant. “Is it any good?” I ask. “It’s great, especially if you are gluten-intolerant,” one of them says. I knew this, but I seriously have second thoughts about going in. I don’t want to revive controversy about the formerly trendy disorder of gluten intolerance, but I swallow my gluten-saturated ignorance and proceed inside, pausing briefly by a display case full of — you guessed it — gluten-free pastries.

Gluten or not, Mediterranea is immediately magical. It’s one big dining room and a messy bar with lots of glowing natural wood and long, sleek swaths of blue, un-upholstered banquettes punctuated by slender red columns. Everything whispers “handmade.” Large, extremely effective acoustic panels, a rarity in Atlanta, partially cover painted plaster walls that vaguely remind me of the modernist style of Jackson Pollock and friends. There’s an upstairs patio where I wanted to dine but it had rained on and off all day. The vibe, in short, is just about the opposite of all the mixed-use beehives that are uglifying Memorial Drive.

I later learn that the restaurant belongs to a couple, Gerard Nudo and Gary McElroy, fugitives from New York City who have impressive educational and career backgrounds in the arts. They both were working at Rizzoli, the famous bookstore and publisher, when they moved to Atlanta. McElroy is a bonafide celiac. He manages business while Nudo oversees the kitchen and does all the baking. The restaurant is truly 100 percent gluten-free. It also features many vegan and vegetarian options and, as the name suggests, the menu is inspired by the famously healthy Mediterranean diet that Nudo, born in Italy, grew up eating. Eat here regularly and you will happily outlive the entire Trump family, despite the rumored immortality granted them by Satan.

The dinner menu, prepared by talented chef Ian Anderson, definitely tilts toward the expensive, although lunch and weekend brunch are modestly priced (the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday). That is not to say the food isn’t worth the cost. I’ve visited for dinner and brunch and enjoyed just about everything I’ve sampled. But let’s be clear. The Mediterranean diet is all about main ingredients. Flavor doesn’t depend on buttery fats, complicated sauces, and lots of salt. So, while the diet is simple, its preparation is conversely demanding. Vegetables predominate. If they’re not super fresh, the flavor falls flat. If you want to season the food to, say, augment weak flavor, you’re going to depend on herbs and olive oil and that requires really deft skill. All of that said, you and I don’t live on the Mediterranean next to a seaside olive orchard, so variations are inevitable. And hey, the Italians can get messy.

SUMPTUOUS SOUTHERNMOST SEAFOOD: Calabrese shrimp and orzo, golden raisins, pine nuts, escarole, and feta. Photo credit: Cliff Bostock
HOT ’N’ TASTY: Pan-roasted chicken breast with harissa glaze and za'atar apple salad. Photo credit: Cliff Bostock
PLANT BASED PIZZA: The Georgia Peach — ground beyond sausage, mushrooms, fresh bell peppers, onions, vegan mozzarella cheese, and roasted basil sauce — inside the flying-saucer carry-out box that decomposes to soil in 90 days. Photo credit: Cliff Bostock

At dinner, my tablemate and I started with a colorful quartet of spreads served with crudites and strips of focaccia. The rectangular plate contained hummus, labneh, olive tapenade, and eggplant. It looked small but turned out to be so filling we decided not to order a second starter. Everything rang true. If you do want another starter, consider the Greek dolmas — grape leaves wrapped around rice and walnuts with a yogurt sauce. This is a dish I have studiously avoided most of my life, since it is usually a gut bomb that has marinated too long in too much olive oil. Mediterranea’s freshly made dolmas actually have an al-dente outer texture that becomes creamy with a few bites. There are other appetizers and salads constructed with greens, fruits, and nuts — all that healthy stuff Mediterraneans allegedly eat.

Entrees are heavy on those same ingredients but may include fish or chicken. I was surprised to see demonized red meat on the menu in the form of steak-frites with a chimichurri sauce. (Those frites are actually roasted fingerling potatoes.) Nudo confirmed that the steak is a concession to those whose happiness depends on ruining their health, but insisted that the plate is dominated by vegetables. I ordered the pan-roasted, juicy chicken breast, which my server said was the menu’s most popular choice. Its harissa glaze was decidedly mild — I like it hotter — but it went deliciously well with the plate’s tart apple salad seasoned with za’atar, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice blend. I also got a few forkfuls of what turned out to be my favorite dish — four gigantic shrimp tossed Calabrese-style with ricelike orzo pasta, escarole, golden raisins, pine nuts, and feta cheese.

I hit the restaurant for Sunday brunch too. The menu naturally features lots of eggs — tantalizingly soft-baked in red chili made with pork and smoked sausage, for example. There are sweet choices like “risotto porridge” made with almond milk, a fig-cherry compote, pistachios, and berries, depending on what’s available. Naturally, I was immediately attracted to the menu’s most expensive dish ($16) of salmon croquettes served on a crowded plate of dried fruits, olives, a dolma, labneh, apple relish, and a sliced hard-boiled egg. The salmon croquettes were a disappointment — two tiny, seemingly undercooked patties with practically no crunch or much flavor, for that matter. The other problem for me was the house-made labneh — the super-thick strained Greek yogurt that’s become super popular with healthy peeps. It is seasoned at Mediterranea in a way I find weirdly pungent. I suspect this is a purely personal reaction, and it’s a trivial complaint in the greater scheme of things, anyway. When I return for lunch, I’m going to try the berbere-spiced lamb patties or one of the grain bowls. For dinner, I’ll order a vegetarian meal like involtini or the eggplant stack. I know that the daily fish special is a major hit with many people.

I’ve tried only two of the gluten-free pastries at the restaurant. First was a thick cheddar-chive biscuit that was served mysteriously tepid. Second was a scone that looked more like a square of very dense cake — so delicious I’ve been constantly craving more. There are different varieties but mine was flooded with the flavors of cherries and pecans and topped with a glaze of pure sugar — a perfect reward for going gluten-free and eating my vegetables. Honestly, you won’t miss gluten at Mediterranea, and that’s a plus for just about everyone.

Go ahead and eat a pizza

Speaking of healthy food, you might want to visit the vegan, explicitly named Plant Based Pizzeria in Virginia-Highland. Open since January, it’s take-out only and wait ’til you see the cool, circular boxes embossed with this notice: “Certified compostable plant fiber turns to soil in 90 days when commercially composted.” That’s so neo-Soylent Green!

The pizzas here are made with spelt flour, which is nutritionally superior to white flour, but not gluten-free. For $5 extra, you can lose the gluten. Most of the composed pizzas are $20. So, here, like everywhere, healthy eating’s going to cost you more. I ordered the “Georgia Peach.” The toppings include the vegan Beyond Sausage, vegan mozzarella, roasted basil sauce, and tiny cubes of roasted peaches.

How was it? This is one of those cases where I thought the food was okay, but not convincingly “real” in the way the Impossible Burger is. The sausage had more crumbly texture than taste, so I found it simply annoying. (I rarely want meat on my pizza, anyway, but I felt I should try it for you, my readers.) The vegan mozzarella was likewise meh — there but not there. The peach cubes were okay but way too small and too scarce. And all of this was atop a spelt crust that was thick and without a crisping char. It’s not that I don’t like nutty-tasting spelt, but it really overwhelmed any flavors the toppings might offer.

I don’t like describing the pizza as I have, because the operators of the place, which also sells vegan burgers, are super nice and obviously passionate about their work. The words “vegan lifestyle” are painted on one wall, and I think that’s key. If your life is built around a vegan diet, comparing the food’s flavor to its conventional, less healthy forms is probably meaningless. When I eat plants, I want straight-up vegetables, not impersonators of meat. Were I to attempt converting to an entirely vegan lifestyle, I know I’d crave meat now and then, and maybe staunching that craving is a central function of the impersonators. So take my whining with a large pinch of that killer called salt.

Mediterranea, 332 Ormond St. S.E., 404-748-4219, mediterraneaatl.com.

Plant Based Pizzeria, 730 Barnett St. N.E., 404-835-2739, plantbasedpizzeria.net.

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