As recently as 25 years ago, garlic was still an ethnic ingredient in this country. Mostly, it was students, intellectuals and immigrants who went to the small, cheap places that served weird, wonderful food like squid cooked in olive oil. Today's extravaganza of cuisines -- Afghan to Vietnamese -- was then scarcely a gleam in the U.S. Department of Immigration's eye.
By now, on the other hand, with local chefs hawking Nepalese dumplings, hwe dupbob, keema malar and mangos with sticky rice, garlic and Greek moussaka sound as old-time friendly as pumpkin pie and T-bone steak. Does eating them rank as an adventure anymore? Yes, when they're served at the Mediterranean. Here, at last, comes Greek food with a difference: no wet, eternally cooked greens, no thin pools of oil, -- but, in their place, hot food, hot plates and strikingly fresh tastes.
The Mediterranean sits across Eastern Avenue southwest from Francis Scott Key Medical Center and Johns Hopkins' shiny, new biomedical complexes. The restaurants Acropolis, Ikaros and Rio Lisboa lie not far down the street.
Outside, the Mediterranean catches the eye with a long, glossy, big blue sign. Inside, its one large dining room is comfortable but basic. There are the requisite Greek plates and amphorae on walls and ledges, and modern oil paintings of Greece that emphasize blue water and blue sky. Cloth-covered tables are small, and decorated with vases of fresh carnations.
The menu makes a number of appetizing suggestions that we were sorry not to explore: A $12.95 hors d'oeuvres platter for two includes sweetbreads, liver, Greek sausage and meatballs in Madeira sauce; other appetizers include lima beans with olive oil and vinegar ($1.95) and kefalograviera cheese ($2.95), "one of the finest cheeses made in Greece."
Four of us began instead with three familiar classics, dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves ($3.25), taramasalata ($1.95) and skordalia ($1.95). One of the secrets of dolmas seems to be to gather together and wrap the ingredients with a light hand. These were lovely, airy packages of rice and herbed ground beef, sauced with a few spoonings of bechamel, oil and lemon.
The creamy, rich taramasalata came with just-cut slices of cucumber, tomato and some exceptional olives, olives so good, we thought about them again the next day. It's a puzzle how best to enjoy taramasalata, a puree based on the flavors of preserved fish roe. This one was not unlike a vivid mayonnaise. Slathered on bread? While the Mediterranean's house bread wasn't bad, we found it too light and insubstantial for the taramasalata. On toast? The skordalia posed the same problem. A terrific mixture of potato, garlic and oil, skordalia begs for something contrasting and quiet to flesh it out. (Incidentally, the menu says "dry garlic" is among the ingredients. It isn't. The garlic's real.)
Our main courses were moussaka ($6.95), shrimp Mediterranean style ($9.95), broiled rockfish ($13.95) and country-style lamb ($10.95), one of nine specials written on a list attached to the menu. (We appreciated having the chance to consider the specials unhurriedly while mulling over what to eat.)
Seven dollars for a generous portion of moussaka makes a great bargain. The ground beef was plentiful, and there was delicacy in its combination with eggplant, zucchini, peas and bechamel. The shrimp dish, one of the specials of the house, was described as "shrimp sauteed with feta cheese." That meant big, fresh, juicy shrimp in a pleasing tomato sauce enriched and softened with melted feta.
At a time when flavorful, fresh fish are disappearing from the marketplace, the broiled rockfish was exceptional. It was immaculately fresh and beautifully broiled, giving the skin a lustrous crispness and the flesh an appetizing sheen. Few kitchens manage such an essentially simple procedure as beautifully as the Mediterranean did.
The country-style lamb was complicated, by contrast -- a phyllo-wrapped envelope of roasted lamb mixed with kasseri cheese, fresh dill, pitted olives and artichokes. Our waiter described it as a Greek beef Wellington, but it beat beef Wellington all hollow, mostly because in this case the wrapper had a function -- to enclose and blend the flavors of meat, herb, cheese, fruit and vegetable. Accompaniments for three of the entrees were a gentle mixture of sauced squashes, and peas, and a chunk of oiled potato.
With our coffee, we received, courtesy of the house, a platter of deep-fried puffs of dough in sugar syrup dusted with cinnamon and chopped nuts. They resisted knives and forks, but made amusing, crisp finger food.
We were impressed by the level of service at the Mediterranean. So many restaurants fall back on unskilled help. At the Mediterranean, there is the sense that running a restaurant is work worthy of intelligent adults.
$ Next: Henry & Jeff's
4901 Eastern Ave., 633-9495
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily ACCEPTS: All major
credit cards FEATURES: Greek cuisine NO-SMOKING AREA: No WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes