By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Initial impressions play a big part in setting the tone for a meal, as I found out while visiting two Mediterranean restaurants recently. The first experience happened at Anatolia Mediterranean Cuisine, an attractive, year-old Turkish restaurant near Mizner Park in Boca Raton. The place has become so popular among Boca foodists that I showed up for dinner midweek without a reservation and was nearly turned away at the door. "I'm sorry, but we don't have anything," said the short, cherub-faced manager, who motioned toward a field of tables dotted with Q-tipped heads. Laughter echoed through the dining room as people hoisted glasses of wine, and the dishes arriving from the busy open kitchen looked fantastic. Dani and I decided the place had to be worth the wait, so we stuck around. Fortunately for us, we were seated less than a half-hour later at a beautiful table for two.
I had almost the exact opposite reaction only weeks before at Al Bawadi, an Arabic/Mediterranean eatery sequestered in a Plantation strip mall. The first time I walked into the place, nobody was around — not a customer in the house on a Saturday night, save the three men smoking a hookah out front, and no one to greet me at the door. I must've looked ridiculous standing there, looping my thumbs into my belt buckles nervously and wondering if the place I had walked in to was even a restaurant. Finally, feeling awkward and flush after five minutes of waiting, I turned around and slinked out the door. As I walked back to my car, one of the men smoking out front stood up and asked me if I needed any help. I mumbled something about meeting a friend elsewhere and sped out of the lot.
Based on only the very disparate introductions to these restaurants, I was sure Anatolia would be my favorite of the two. But after waiting for that cherished table and sitting to eat, the meal that followed was surprisingly underwhelming. And if that weren't strange enough, my next visit to Al Bawadi had me floored: The place served some dynamite, authentic Mediterranean food. Hell, the staff was even present this time — and friendly. How is it, I thought to myself, that these two places could offer such strangely different experiences from the ones advertised?
212 S. Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL 33432
Region: Boca Raton
Al Bawadi, 1787 N. University Drive, Plantation. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 954-693-0986.
Let's start with Anatolia. Walking into the restaurant is like meeting someone you know you're going to fall in love with right away. The cozy boîte faces Federal Highway, its broad glass windows exposing a warm dining room baked in rich reds and browns. Complementing that view is a menu as broad as the Black Sea is wide: There's the typical spread of falafel, hummus, and kebabs, yes, but there are also unique dishes like pan-fried pieces of calves' liver spritzed with lemon and Turkish flatbread pizzas called pides laced with feta and lamb. Prices are cheap for this part of Boca too, which has conspired with great word of mouth to make Anatolia a very lively spot.
Inside, the staff is a bit rushed but never made us feel so. They quickly won our affections too with a plate of fantastic marinated olives and crunchy bread with which to sop up the garlic- and clove-scented marinade. They'll fill water glasses without having to be asked and pop open bottles of wine brought in by customers. Anatolia has no liquor license but surprisingly does not charge a corkage fee (a conversation with the manager revealed that that will change in the near future). The accommodating service made it easier to turn our attention to more entertaining things, like the thrall of folks cavorting over big plates of grilled octopus and salads that seemed to tower three feet above their bowls.
Anatolia's charm, however, deteriorated quickly from there. I don't expect a restaurant to never run out of a popular dish, but as we tried to order, almost everything earned an answer of "Sorry, all out." Dani had set her sights on a roasted red pepper stuffed with tomatoes and vegetables but was rebuffed; in place of it, our goateed waiter recommended a stuffed eggplant called imam bayildi ($10.95). Its baked-then-chilled flesh had the same sort of unappealing gelatinous texture of gravy that hardens in the fridge.
I had similar problems. A dark-haired woman at the table across from us had just received a plate of whole, grilled bronzini — the warm-water fish glistening with a crusty char and lovingly set on a bed of tomato-infused bulgur pilaf. But when I asked for one of my own, the waiter told me they were out of it. Ditto on the dorade, another Mediterranean fish I saw scooting around the restaurant toward other tables. Heart set on fish, I settled for char-grilled salmon ($21) and regretted it immediately. The bland, overcooked square had all the flavor of a lump of charcoal. It was as if the seasoning had been dialed down to placate the older, nonethnic crowd.
I'd have been willing to forgive those miscues if Anatolia could've nailed the simple stuff: Our dishes arrived nearly ten minutes apart, a theme that was reproduced at tables all around us. And even the simple, Mediterranean specialties were barely passable. Anatolia's falafel, in particular, arrived so hard and dry that I considered flinging them to catch the attention of our drifting waiter. Neither the tahini nor the yogurt sauce that came with our hot appetizer plate ($14.50) cured the problem — both sauces were equally bland. Likewise, slices of eggplant and zucchini that appeared alongside were so sodden with oil that they tasted like deep-fried sponges.