In ancient times, the Mediterranean Sea was a “superhighway” of transportation, facilitating cultural exchange and trade between the region that fashioned Western civilization as we recognize it today. As the sapphire heart that gives life to the countries surrounding her, the Mediterranean was the seat of empires for millennia.
The countries bordering the Mediterranean share more than history. They also share culinary traditions which are celebrated in the Mediterranean Cafe, a diminutive restaurant specializing in the foods of North Africa and the Middle East with popular foods of Greece added because of popular demand.
Proprietor Ridha Bouajila, a Tunisian by birth, previously owned the now defunct Marrakech restaurant near the University of New Mexico and after a three-year hiatus launched his second restaurant venture, aptly named the Mediterranean Cafe. Tunisian style accoutrements and soothing sitar music in the background lend to the charm of the small restaurant with limited seating.
On Fridays and Saturdays at dinner a belly dancer performs tableside. While prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same regard as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, we found it strangely mesmerizing–although I must admit it was a challenge to keep my eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.
A two-page menu includes several familiar items along with a list of chef’s specialties we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Albuquerque. A good way to start is with one familiar and one new appetizer. The dolmates, five grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs, is a good choice for the former while the Tunisian brika, a limpia dough turnover stuffed with potato mousse, herbs and parsley is a nice introduction to something new.
Rather than trying the standard Grecian entrees with which you might be quite familiar, visit the restaurant with a dining companion and order entrees with contrasting tastes. The tagine (a Moroccan stew named after the traditional earthenware dish in which it is cooked) of lemon chicken is one of my recommendations. A quarter chicken is marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with green and black olives, saffron and lemons that have been preserved for four months in an environment of vinegar, coriander, cumin, salt and other spices. It’s not nearly as tart as say, lemon chicken as served at Chinese restaurants and as such, invigorates the chicken without dominating it.
Another wonderful alternative is the tagine of lamb with honey which is a dish of lamb marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with prunes, apricots, almonds and honey. It’s not dessert sweet but sweet enough to defeat any gaminess inherent in lamb and it’s absolutely delicious.
The Mediterranean Cafe prepares its own pita bread only when business is slow. Otherwise they obtain their bread from Chicago where Greek food is incomparable. This is a fabulous restaurant that deserves heavy patronage!
513 San Mateo, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Tagine of Lamb with Honey; Tagine of Lemon Chicken; Tunisian Brika