The Mediterranean Sea -- a crisp, salty expanse of blue where rolling waves crash into the coasts of such exotic places as Tunisia, Greece and Cyprus; Crete, Corsica and Italy; Sardinia and Sicily. A place of rich culture and decadent music, dance, and foods with names that I cannot pronounce.
Born and raised in southern Colorado, there isn't much exposure to traditional foods from other parts of the world, except for the Mexican and Asian restaurants that seem to breed and multiply at rabbit-speed. Finding a slice of Mediterranean culture in the Citadel Mall food court was, to say the least, a surprise.
I had more than a few unsolicited recommendations for The Mediterranean Café, but still I had my doubts. It's in the mall, for one. I hardly want to spend my evening dining in the company of cruising mall rats and screaming kids, nor do I find the glare of neon advertisements and signs to fit my idea of mood lighting. But the Caf is tucked away on the lower level of the court, away from McDonald's and the main entry. Up a short staircase, and you find a few tables surrounded by plants on two sides. As long as you face east-northeast, the mall almost disappears and imaginative diners may be able to convince themselves that they are, in fact, in a far better place.
The Café itself is incredibly clean and modern, aesthetically pleasing. Behind the glass counter sit dishes of fresh, colorful salads while a portion of the requisite lamb slowly turns under heat lamps in the background.
The whole thing is a process of discovery for me -- I know nothing about Mediterranean food; the extent of my exposure to the region can be summed up in two words: Anthony Quinn. I tend to associate all things Mediterranean with Quinn's performance as Zorba the Greek, the dancing, drinking, seducing miner. Wanting the full experience, I ordered the "Mediterranean Feast" -- two plates heaped with food. As I walked my tray to my secluded garden dining area, I wondered, would Anthony Quinn eat this?
The answer is yes, by God, yes Anthony Quinn would eat this food. He'd cram it into his mouth and laugh and spit feta cheese everywhere, he'd be so pleased.
Not only were the veggies crisp and the ingredients colorful, the order included such a variety of dishes that I drank a liter of water to cleanse my palate and taste it all. The spanikopita was a spinach freak's dream. Kind of a quiche, the three-inch thick slice of feta and phyllo dough was crammed with verdant greens. I felt like squinting and fighting Bluto after a few bites.
The serving of moussaka, a kind of lasagna with lamb and eggplant, zucchini, meat sauce and creamy Bechamel sauce, was equally generous. It was tart, and had a slightly sweet, cinnamony aftertaste.
The seasoned pita bread slices were good enough to be junk food. Smothered with hummus, they disappeared quickly. A pile of fresh lettuce and tomatoes was topped with gyro slices that at first glance looked dry, but yielded a rich, moist, seasoned flavor. Like the gyro, the deep fried falafel balls were rich and salty, filling.
The dish that won my undying favor, however, was dolmas. I had never seen a cooked grape leaf, nor did I know they were edible. Yet there they were, stuffed with a mixture of rice and lamb. The seasonings vaguely reminded me of corned beef hash, but without the heavy aftertaste. As I sat munching on the exotic dish, I forgave the mall for being what it is. Instead of being annoyed at the noise and rampant capitalism, I felt like a tourist, watching the bustling city go by.
After all, you can't help but be relaxed after being transported to the Mediterranean for $8.99. Especially when Anthony Quinn joins you there for lunch.