Our cheerful, blonde, blue-eyed, peaches-and-cream-complexioned waitress at Mediterranean Cuisine told us, “You just never know what kind of crowd is going to come in here. It’s different every week.” It may well have been the understatement of the year.
On most nights, Mediterranean Cuisine, a tiny restaurant across from the Vanderbilt campus, serves gyros and falafel. But on Saturday nights, the restaurant presents, in addition to gyros and falafel, live music and belly dancing. And clearly, on Saturday nights at Mediterranean Cuisine, it’s the show, stupid. When our party of seven, some men and some women, arrived around 8 p.m., nothing could have prepared us for the oddities that lay before us. By the time we left, it was nearly midnight, and I had almost forgotten we had eaten.
Mediterranean Cuisine is located on the second floor of the small 21st Avenue strip center that used to be home to a big Kinko’s, next to the site of the now defunct O’Charley’s. (You are so Nashville if you give directions using landmarks that no longer exist.) The atmosphere is decidedly casual, suggesting nothing unusual at first glance.
The small room is haphazardly decorated with Middle Eastern prints, photographs, and souvenirs. The tables and chairs are standard restaurant-supply issue; the cutlery comes wrapped up in paper napkins. A small bar serves beer, wine, and liquor.
Smoking is not permitted at lunch, but it seems to be encouraged in the evenings, when there is no “no smoking” area in sight. A shelf full of tall hookahs above the bar did catch our eye when we were first seated, but a half-hour later, they had mysteriously disappeared. So had the other typical-Nashvillian customers who had been eating there when we arrived.
The menu offers the standard Middle Eastern cuisine of Lebanon, Egypt, and Greece. If you’re a table of two and can’t make a decision, you can start with a maza, a preset platter of sampler-sized appetizers. Pita bread (definitely not the freshly made version from Baraka Bakery) is cut into triangles and delivered in a basket. It comes in handy for scooping up the hummus and baba ghanouj (both appealing in consistency but in need of more garlic), the lemony tabouli, and the foul muddamas, which, at Mediterranean Cuisine, is a coarsely puréed dip of fava beans, garlic, lemon juice, and chopped tomato, served at room temperature. (I like Baraka’s warm, salad-like version better.) The tasty dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with rice, ground beef, and spices, are two-bite-sized and come three to a plate. The crisply fried falafel patties are served on a mound of hummus and tabouli. Vegetarians could make a meal of these, with a salad or the lentils and rice.
About midway through our appetizers, a young woman arrived, barefoot and wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and flowing cotton pants. Her two long-haired male companions looked like roadies for a struggling rock band. They all sat down in a rear booth and ordered beers. We wondered if this shoeless blond woman, her hair tied up in a bandanna, might be the belly dancer. It didn’t seem likely.
About that time, the four-member Arabian Nights Band started to warm up. The volume went way up, then down, then way up again. There was plenty of ear-splitting feedback to hold the audience’s attention. Muzak this was not. A man, who occasionally went behind the bar or into the kitchen, explained that the singing was in Arabic because that was the most common language for Mediterranean Cuisine’s Saturday-night customers. Indeed, men were filling up the tables near the stage, and they all knew all the words. They clapped in enthusiastic rhythm. Once in a while, they jumped up in a sudden burst of energy for a short solo dance. It was becoming more difficult to pay attention to the food.
Nevertheless, we were moving along to our salads. Each started off as a garden salad ($2.49) consisting of fresh greens, primarily iceberg lettuce, with other ingredients added for an additional charge. The Greek salad adds feta cheese, black olives, tomatoes, green and banana peppers, and cucumbers for an extra dollar; the seafood salad throws in a half-dozen grilled shrimp for just $3 more. The foutoush salad leaves out the greens and substitutes chopped raw veggies with sliced raw onion and crisply toasted slivers of seasoned pita bread. Eschew the ranch or French dressing at all costs. Go instead for the traditional Greek simplicity of olive oil, vinegar, a squirt of lemon, and a sprinkle of dried oregano.
By 9:30, the woman in the back booth was guzzling her second or third beer, and we were beginning to think she probably was the belly dancer. We figured she was just bolstering her courage before displaying her ample charms to the crowd, which was sizable by that time. Assertively macho men, most of them wearing tight shirts and pants, were greeting one another with highly physical expressions of mutual admiration. There were hookahs on almost every table, and the men casually passed the pipe from one to another. A fruity scent was filling the air.
Meanwhile, our entrées had arrived. Each was built upon a bed of yellow rice, piled with Greek salad. The difference between the shish kebob platter, the shawarma platter, and the gyro platter had to do with the cut of the meat that was piled on top. Gyro consists of very thin strips of lamb or chicken; shawarma is slightly thicker, but very tender, slices of steak or chicken; the shish kebob’s cubes of beef and lamb are thicker still. Each includes grilled onion, tomato, and peppers. The lamb was gamy, but not unpleasantly so. The tender, flavorful beef shawarma was the best.
Once our entrées were finished, we ordered Turkish coffee and a hookah of our very own ($5). That’s when we noticed that the blond woman in the back booth was gone. Sure enough, moments later, she emerged from a back room, where she had been transformed into an exotic belly dancer draped in turquoise veils, her face painted. With her torso undulating, she looked voluptuous in her sequined bra. As the Arabian Nights played, she moved through the room, stopping in front of various tables so that her appreciative customers could tuck a tip into her bra or the band of fabric around her swaying hips. Occasionally, one of the men leapt up from his seat, tied one of the dancer’s gauzy veils around his hips, and started undulating alongside her. She never stopped smiling.
It’s not often I find myself recommending a restaurant that leaves me unimpressed by its food, and it’s not likely I’ll go back to Mediterranean Cuisine. This is a case where once probably is enough. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Mediterranean Cuisine is located at 400 21st Ave. S. (321-8960). Open Mon.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sat. 10:30 a.m.-whenever. Music begins around 9 p.m., dancing about 10 p.m. There is a $5 cover.