When I hear "Mediterranean cuisine," my taste memories flash back to San Francisco's Mission barrio, where 7 bucks bought me trips to Lebanon via mouthfuls of Middle Eastern shawarma sandwiches that my favorite hole in the wall served with lamb, grilled eggplant and harisa, the North African chili paste that seared Mediterranean memories into my tongue for hours onward.
Around the corner and down the street, I'd pick up cool and salty cheeses and olives at a Greek deli. One my way home, I'd duck into the Italian deli, if only to smell the prosciutto.
Within walking distance of my house, I could dive into Mediterranean cuisine -- a collision of history and shared cultures contributed by the nation-states that ring the Mediterranean Sea -- Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, to name just a few, from Europe to the Middle East to North Africa.
Mediterranean is the flavor of the season in the South Sound. In addition to the "Mediterranean by Northwest" menu at at seven-year-old Primo Grill in Tacoma, (more on that in paragraphs to follow), Mediterranean wines and dining styles flow from Olympia's four-month-old Acqua Via (reviewed today) and more Mediterranean is promised from Merende, Jeff Bishop's upcoming restaurants in downtown Tacoma.
At Adriatic Grill Italian Cuisine and Wine Bar near Tacoma Mall, chef Bill Trudnowski takes his menu up and around the boot to the waters east of Italy. Different seas, similar culinary sensibilities.
As for Greek Mediterranean, two full-service, sit-down restaurants two have opened in the past six months (Opa! Greek Cuisine on Sixth Avenue, and Giggling Greek in downtown Puyallup). Mr. Greek is now open in South Hill, joining Johnny's Greek Cafe in Lakewood and It's Greek to Me in Tacoma and Federal Way in the casual, faster-food front.
Given the Mediterranean's geographic sweep -- Spain, Morocco, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, France -- can "Mediterranean cuisine" be boiled down to one easy-to-swallow category?
Is "Mediterranean" a way of not saying "Italian"?
"Mediterranean gives us a much broader aspect," said Charlie McManus, the Irish-born chef at Tacoma's Primo Grill.
While Primo Grill's accent is Italian, McManus said his menu is "not only the food of Italy but also of France with tapenade, aioli and confit and gratin, Spain with tapas-style appetizers like piquillo peppers, North Africa with charmoula, harissa and couscous, and Greece and Lebanon with garlic and citrus flavors."
Jeff Bishop, formerly the chef at Il Fiasco in Tacoma and Brix 25 in Gig Harbor, said Mediterranean "is a healthy way of eating. Lots of fish, lamb, fresh regional ingredients, olive oils, simple preparations."
A sneak peek at Bishop's upcoming restaurant, Merende, looks like this: lamb and chanterelle risotto; Barolo-braised beef short ribs with chestnut potato puree; calamari with hot peppers, garlic, oregano and lemon aioli; toasted couscous with spiced carrots, sultanas, pine nuts, thyme, parsley, orange zest. Some of these are meal-sized dishes, some are small-plates, reflecting not just the ingredients of the Mediterranean but way of eating in the Mediterranean.
"When I label the cuisine as 'Mediterranean,'" Bishop said, "I wish to give respect to the regions of that area."
At Adriatic Grill, Trudnowski said, "Our position is 'Italian Cuisine & Wine Bar.' But, as the name states, we can pull from the entire region for ideas and food that we can have fun with."
Trudnowski goes easy on the dried-pasta-and-red-sauce Italian fare (but you can still order darned good lasagna) and stocks Adriatic Grill's menu with seafood -- swordfish with artichokes and capers, herbed salmon, smoked ahi carpaccio with baby arugula.
And what about McManus' "Mediterranean by Northwest" motto?
McManus said it "means the flavors of the Mediterranean but with an American Northwest sensibility rooted in seafood and produce from the Northwest."
Indeed, that locally-grown spearmint on those locally-grown carrots I enjoyed recently with McManus' Guinness-braised lamb evoked the Mediterranean. So did the sultry saffron broth that bathed wood-roasted calamari. And double-ditto for the new falafel sandwich at McManus' new place, Crown Bar, where, for $8 you're served six delicious nuggets of fried chick-pea dough on soft flat bread with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and zippy yogurt sauce.