Mediterranean Exploration Company: Restaurant Review

John Gorham's Mediterranean Exploration Company on choppy seas.

Recipes are, indeed, pulled from across the region that begins at Gibraltar and ends at the foot of the Zagros, ranging from Spanish-style dates wrapped in "beef bacon" to Turkish coffee and Lebanese lamb tartare.

And John Gorham is making his most ambitious exploration since Toro Bravo, the now iconic tapas joint he opened after his first trip to Spain. Here, rather than dabble with Tasty N Sons-style international super hits—New Jersey pork roll sandwiches next to a full English breakfast—he makes a deeper study of Syrian peppers, Sicilian olives and French feta. 

Also, it's a wise commercial venture, focused on the trending genre in food, as named by everyone from Entrepreneur to Forbes to the Food Network, and with an aggressive happy hour featuring $3 Guinness or Peroni and $9 gyros for the Pearl's many just-loosed cube gnomes.

Three months in, though, Med Ex is a disappointment from a man that's twice been behind our Restaurant of the Year.

Mostly, it's the little things. Like pitas that are pale, thick and doughy, taken from the oven before they develop full character. All four we had here recalled Franz. There was also a problem with an appetizer of French sheep's milk feta, which was served at refrigerator temperature. It was extraordinarily boring until we left it long enough for the flavor to bloom.

The $12 "MEC gyro," with housemade everything emerges as a merely competent lamb gyro, disappointing those who have paid $15 for a pair of Gorham's outrageously tasty fish tacos without complaint. That same inability to match the quality of family Middle Eastern joints while upping the price dooms a trio of three smallish kebabs ($21) served below olives and pencil-thick pieces of astringent pickled turnip. The beef kebab was very dry; the chicken have such a light touch of lemon harisa, mint, cinnamon, chili that it seems like no seasoning at all. I was also unimpressed with the saganaki—Greek cheese often served flambéed in a brandy flame with a loud "opa!"—which here is tiny, served flame-free in a little skillet with grilled slabs of Ken's bread instead of pita for $8.

Then again, those complaints will seem like quibbles to those who make lucky picks inside the former Riffle, a warehouse-y corner space that's now more minimalist than ever. That starts with those dates wrapped in cured lower cow's belly—this is perhaps the most notable pig-less menu in Porklandia—which have a salty crunch outside a gooey sweetness inside, plus a spritz of aleppo pepper and crunchy pit of almond ($2 each, $1 during happy hour). Add a little bowl of warm Castelvetrano olives ($4) and round of Gold Dinar cocktails (Four Roses yellow label, lemon, honey, Aleppo pepper, $9) and you have a very good start to your meal. Finish with the fresh, harissa- and mint-inflected Tunisian couscous ($12) and the El Baboor lamb kebab pie ($18), a comforting cassolette turned into a pot pie with sesame-flecked pita and stuffed with juicy pieces of smoky, gamey lamb in a thick fire-roasted tomato sauce. 

Also keep an eye peeled for seasonal specials, like a roasted peach ($9), sweet like a crustless pie, topped with a dollop of fromage blanc, crushed pistachios and a drizzle of the house's Aleppo honey.

But about that honey: Gorham is obsessed. It's everywhere here, sometimes for good, sometimes not. It didn't work on the hummus with lamb ragu ($14), clashing with the rest of the bowl. On the other hand, it was gorgeous on my recommended dessert, a batter-fried chicken leg and thigh. Yes, that crispy, crunchy, juice-dripping fried chicken with hot-sweet honey is $11. But end your meal with the chicken and the little copper pot of Water Avenue-roasted Turkish coffee ($6), and Gorham's whole expedition seems very sensible. 

  1. Order this: El Baboor lamb kebab pie ($18) and fried chicken ($11).
  2. Best deal: Happy-hour beer ($3) and beef bacon-wrapped dates ($1).
  3. I’ll pass: Hummus, kebabs, gyro, pita, saganaki.

GO: Mediterranean Exploration Company, 333 NW 13th Ave., 222-0906,