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Mandolin Aegean Bistro is the sort of petite neighborhood joint that kindles a kinship with diners as soon as they enter. Perhaps this is because the baby-size restaurant makes you almost feel the need to protect it. Plus the former 1940s home is adorably adorned in blue and white (do paint stores in Greece bother to stock any other colors?), and quaintness fills the air as tangibly as extra-virgin Greek olive oil fills vials on each table.
Upon entering the establishment, we peered inside the partially open kitchen to our right and watched a chef pressing pudgy white rounds of pide dough to ready them for baking — just the type of thing you want to see. Soon after seating, we were served small paper bags filled with slices of the resultant light, warm, sesame-flecked bread. Yeah, baby!
Pass the kitchen and you're in the middle of a 17-seat dining room; take another step or two and you're outside again, this time in the back-yard garden patio. Under lantern-laced trees, some 40 seats cluster here, a personable oasis in a faceless stretch of streets two blocks south of the Buena Vista Bistro. That's another reason to root for this rookie: it's a brave babe-in-the-woods.
Mandolin's Aegean cuisine is billed as "simple, rustic, and authentic to the villages of Greece and Turkey." Most of the menu, which is clasped by clothespins onto a thin wood board, hews to the Hellenic — regrettable if only because the latter food is less rehearsed in these parts. In fact, we know the words by heart to many of the dozen-plus mezes ($7 to $12): steamed mussels, fried calamari, flamed cheese saganaki, kefte meatballs...
Still, there are some distinctive Turkish delights on the playlist (two of the owners, Ahmet Erkaya and Erhan Kostepen, are from Turkey; the third partner, Ahmet's girlfriend, Anastasia Koutsioukis, hails from Greece). We especially enjoyed a lemony fava bean purée and a stunningly flavorful tomato-walnut dip dotted with minced onions, which were two of three spreads in the "Turkish sampler"; a smooth, mild, garbanzo-dominant hummus filled out the trilogy, which was served with more pide. The Greek sampler plates tzatziki, tarama, and smoked eggplant purée.
On the other hand, not everything from the Turks impressed. Thin, dry, overgrilled slices of sucuk, referred to as "Turkish chorizo," tasted a little like Spanish sausage but with salty undertones of beef jerky.
Sucuk aside, Mandolin performs straightforward cooking best, whether it be an assertively grilled whole yellowtail, whose pristine white flakes were primped with lemon and olive oil, or a sweet, tender curlicue of grilled octopus misted with the same Mediterranean lubricants. Even chicken kebab, which is usually just menu fodder for timid eaters, turned out to be unexpectedly rousing — five huge, juicy hunks of deliciously grilled white meat enhanced further when dipped into a side dish of tzatziki. Maroulosalata, an extremely refreshing toss of thinly shredded romaine leaves, feta crumbs, scallions, and fresh dill in light white vinaigrette, was a bright addition to the plate. The other accompaniment, orzo pilaf, translated to rice pilaf — and a regrettably cold, mushy one. At this point, after only a couple of months in operation, Mandolin's kitchen is inconsistent.
Which brings us to a moussaka of mostly sizzling chopped beef and lamb, the capping comprising flimsy layers of potato, eggplant, and overbaked béchamel sauce. It was middling at best, which makes the $17 cost that much harder to swallow, especially at lunch. Main courses run $15 to $19, which except for the moussaka is fair enough.
The wine list is likewise priced to please. Most of the bottles are in the $25 to $40 range. The selection is global but focused on the less fruity Old World styles. A short list of beers features the local Key West Sunset Ale.
Sandwich options include a sirloin/lamb cheeseburger; a whole-wheat wrap with spinach, tomato, and feta (a mimicry of spanakopita); a traditional lamb gyro that boasts charred, meaty flavors; and "pulled lamb with grilled onions." We ordered the last to go one day, only to unpack it at home and discover a lack of lettuce, tomato, sauce, spread, dip, or any moistener. It was just lamb and onions in a less-than-fresh pide. You'd think they could have thrown in a little tzatziki with the most expensive sandwich ($12). Others are $7 to $10, and all deliver the choice of excellent hand-cut fries or the sprightly maroulosalata.
Maroulosalata is likewise one of four à la carte salads, but stick with an excellent rendition of the classic Greek mix: large, ripe wedges of tomato, cucumber, and green peppers mingled with smaller shots of red onion, capers, and Kalamata olives — the radiant medley grabbing shade under a wide white plank of feta cheese.
Mandolin's chocolate cake, the sole dessert offering during our visits, is a clumsily constructed square composed of sweet chocolate icing spread above, around, and between three layers of thin biscuit wafers. It resembled something a proud mother might display as proof of her 5-year-old's inherent pastry skills. The taste was not sophisticated enough to dispel this suspicion.
A cute, homespun appearance can get a dessert only so far — and, for that matter, get a restaurant only so far. Mandolin Aegean Bistro needn't worry about the latter point, because behind its bright-eyed façade beats a sweet spirit and some tasty fare.