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?
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.
After that charming introduction, I felt like I was trapped in an episode of Punk'd: Restaurant Edition. We didn't so much leave the restaurant that night as flee.
When I went back to Al Bawadi, though, my initial impressions of the two places became even more divided. The night I arrived, the restaurant was mostly empty again. And with its dim lighting and staid décor of dull earth tones, the place was about as inviting as a winter day in Michigan.
But this time, instead of waiting at the door like uninvited guests, we were quickly greeted by our waitress, an attractive young woman who had the sort of charm you find in roadside diners all across the South. She set my friend Frank and I up with two shared platters, one a combination of almost every appetizer the restaurant offered ($18.99), another a spread of each type of grilled kebab ($14.99). We munched on vinegary pickled beets and a spread of salty olives as our parade of plates arrived, nearly a dozen selections from the two platters.
What a feast 30-some bucks and a little open-mindedness will net you at Al Bawadi. Among the litany of small plates was kibbeh, fried balls of bulgur and beef that look like oblong eggs served with a salad of mint and parsley-flecked tabbouleh. A huge mound of baba gannouj, smooth as creamy peanut butter, begged to be dipped into with a basket of warm pita bread. We swiped up the roasted eggplant dip and worked in bits of tomato-cucumber salad to make miniature wraps, sometimes adding bits of ground lamb kofta that was presented in long, juicy spears. The only thing more expansive than the three other types of chicken and beef kebabs, almond-flecked rice pilaf, and warm, stuffed grape leaves was the real and imposing challenge of trying to eat all of what was presented to us. Still, we tried mightily, pausing only to laugh at the two children spilling through the restaurant's tables as their parents (one of two other tables present) struggled to eat in peace.
Granted, it's not as much fun to eat small plates in a nearly vacant restaurant as one jumping with life. But I had reconciled that fact thanks to Al Bawadi's nearly flawless incarnation of falafel. Those fried little balls of love are what great street food is all about: crisp but greaseless, moist and musty, with the aroma of chickpeas and garlic. And its hummus is the stuff of dreams: so smooth, so creamy, so intensely flavored. An oval plate of the spread is like a shimmering portal, and at its center is a pond of lemon juice and EVOO so pure and striking that I wanted to bathe in it and towel off with a pita afterward.
Of course, Al Bawadi's food wasn't flawless either. The shish kebabs were a little dry and bland and the grape leaves a touch soggy. But not once did I feel abused, like I had after my meal at Anatolia.
I don't expect the crowds that gather at Anatolia to switch teams because Al Bawadi makes a better falafel. Dining out, after all, is about far more than what's on the plate, and I'm sure Anatolia's successes have as much to do with that amazing first impression as the few dishes it does get right. But armed with a bit of levity and a willingness to look past your surroundings, a little joint like Al Bawadi has just as much to offer.