As Odysseus discovered while flailing about the western Mediterranean, the region isn’t always hospitable. Even when the sky is blue and the seas are calm, there’s an ever-present danger of encountering an enslaving goddess or one-eyed monster.
I thought about Odysseus’s epic journey while making my way through Mediterrano’s menu. It’s possible to have a remarkable meal at Mediterrano, which has been doing wonders with olive oil and lemons for more than a decade. But diners who order badly–or have the misfortune to be saddled with a horribly unskilled server, as I was on my first visit–are apt to emerge from the sunny dining room wondering what folks like so much about the place.
It’s rare to find excellence and inexcusable errors coexisting as peacefully as they do at Mediterrano. While some restaurants can fairly be described as inconsistent, that’s not the issue here: the good is reliably good, and the bad is unfailingly bad. To Mediterrano’s credit, the good far outweighs the bad, but the restaurant’s willingness to hang on to what’s not working is a mystery worthy of an oracle.
On my second visit to Mediterrano, I asked our server whether he had any recommendations. He spoke glowingly of the lamb chops, praised the Chilean sea bass–and then dropped his voice to a whisper to confide, “I wouldn’t recommend the mahi.”
I asked about the paella, a dish offered in a variety of sizes, including a celebratory $100 portion designed to feed six people.
“Have you had paella?” he asked. “We get a lot of complaints about the paella.”
I took his advice and didn’t try either–and should also have heeded friends’ warnings to skip the grilled lamb souvlaki. My punishment was a few dry and flavorless chunks of overcooked meat spiked with rosemary. It’s never a good sign when a single skewer of lamb is served with two full ramekins of tzatziki sauce.
Still, hints of Mediterrano’s prowess showed up on my souvlaki plate, which featured a bouquet of lightly sauteed snow peas, carrots, and broccolini. Mediterrano’s strength is fresh, healthy food, beautifully presented. Except for one feta-drenched pasta, almost everything I sampled had a light, clean flavor. Mediterrano’s dinner menu also includes three low-fat entrees approved by St. Joseph Mercy Hospital’s Michigan Heart and Vascular Institute, a thoughtful gesture I wish more non-corporate restaurants would make.
Mediterrano makes phenomenal salads, bestowing care on even the simplest starters. I loved a Caesar salad made with sprightly romaine and didn’t mind paying an extra dollar for a trio of pudgy anchovies packed with salt. A basic Greek salad, topped with a block of fresh feta, was colorfully garnished with slivers of red and yellow bell peppers.
Other appetizers were equally successful: bacon and dates are a softball combination, but Mediterrano elevates its version by stuffing Medjool dates with house-made chorizo, smoked bacon, and a garlicky nut sauce before cooking them. A salmon carpaccio was so heavily brined that the salt obliterated the subtle flavors of citrus and tequila flaunted on the menu, but a roasted artichoke spritzed with lemon and olive oil posed a fine tribute to spring. And the grilled haloumi with a strong umami flavor and a sweet pepper coulis was a revelation worth repeating.
Among the entrees, Odysseus might make a detour for the bucatini alla rustica, an irresistible pairing of wonderfully spicy sausage and banana peppers with the woefully under-utilized spaghetti-with-a-hole pasta shape. And the rack of lamb, slathered with a sweet onion sauce, was faultless–easily the best lamb I’ve tasted in town.
Mediterrano’s olive oil is made in Sparta, Greece, according to owner John Roumanis’s specifications. A staple here since before most Ann Arbor restaurants had the audacity to suggest anything but butter belonged on bread, it provides the foundation for many dishes and makes a terrific accompaniment to Mediterrano’s crusty bread when the complementary taramosalata runs out. Young and full-flavored, it may soon appear on local grocery shelves: Roumanis says he’s in talks with Plum Market, the Produce Station, and Hiller’s.
While the talented (and blessedly honest) server we met on our second visit instinctively timed our salads, appetizers, and entrees perfectly, our first server struggled to keep up. After taking our appetizer order, she didn’t return for our dinner order until it was time to clear our appetizer plates. When the entrees did arrive, a busser parked them on a tray a few feet from our table minutes before the server appeared to distribute them. And when she was clearing steak knives, she obliviously waved them way too close to my throat.
I wish Mediterrano would demand more from its staffers in both the back and front of the house. A restaurant producing anything as irresistible as the bucatini shouldn’t allow a server to exasperate its guests. And it doesn’t make sense that Mediterrano is responsible for both the city’s best take on lamb and, in the souvlaki, one of its worst.
Mediterrano is a very good restaurant. And with just a few tweaks, everyone might think so.
2900 S. State
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. noon-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Appetizers $6.99-$12.99, salads $6.99-$9.99, lunch entrees $10.99-$16.99, dinner entrees $13.99-$29, desserts $6