Portland Food Adventure at Mediterranean Exploration Company: A Sneak Peek

If you  consider yourself a Portland “foodie” and haven’t heard of Mediterranean Exploration Company, then you’re obviously slacking on your Eater PDX feed.

Regardless, the keywords about MEC that you need to know to get the gist: John Gorham, The Revolving Door of Restaurants on NW 13th and Flanders, and Greek potatoes. John Gorham, the culinary sheikh behind Tasty n Sons, Tasty n Alder and Toro Bravo recently took over the former Riffle space; painted the walls an extremely favourableTiffany turquoise (aka The Nines Hotel’s signature hue) and revamped it into a clean, industrial chic restaurant peppered with a street sign in Hebrew here and there.

True to it’s name, MEC’s menu is a blend of locavore bounty fused into traditional Mediterranean dishes (mostly focusing on the Jewish side of Middle Eastern cuisine). If you’ve tried any of Gorham’s other restaurants you will see some crossover in terms of ingredients and style- for instance MEC has it’s own rendition of radicchio salad (there’s a mean one at the two Tasty’s if you didn’t know).

Since I accidentally slept through the MEC Preview Party a couple of Sundays back and suffered the subsequent Instagram-induced FOMO, I decided to attend the Portland Food Adventures dinner last Wednesday to get a taste of the Pearl District’s newest destination. The menu, as has been the case with each PFA I’ve attended was far from skimpy:

Mediterranean Exploration Company's Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner
Mediterranean Exploration Company’s Menu for the Portland Food Adventures Dinner

Upon entry, I was greeted with a refreshing Moroccan Spritz craft cocktail, a plate of olives and some scrumptious fried tomato fritters. Forgive me for prioritising my hunger levels over getting a photo of the fritter- just envision an ambiguously shaped fried tidbit.

Moroccan Spritz Cocktail with Olives

As I’ve mentioned previously, my mother is Saudi-Palestinian and I grew up a decent portion of my life in Dubai. As a result of this upbringing, I’m incredibly discriminating on what I consider to be stellar Middle Eastern food. The term ‘Middle Eastern food’ itself is rather vague anyhow as it encompasses a plethora of different sub-cultures and their regional cuisine; much which is unbeknownst to most Western palates. Besides, Middle Eastern cuisine is often categorized as Mediterranean cuisine (particularly Greek)- and while there are some similarities in ingredients and structure within a meal; they are quite different when done authentically. Plus, “Mediterranean Cuisine,” in it of itself has just as much variety.

From my understanding, Gorham isn’t necessarily trying to make MEC into a 100% accurate emulation of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine but to rather inspire local bounty with those flavors and combine them with a few of the traditional staples. For instance topping hummus with a lamb ragu- a play on the traditional lamb or chicken shawarma topping.

In the first set of courses, we got to sample a variety of dishes that I would compare to Mezze (small typically vegan/vegetarian dips and bites that make up an appetiser course):

 From the initial courses, my favourites were the fried cauliflower with labneh and the radicchio salad (because I’m a sucker for radicchio salads as my neverending love affair with the Nostrana salad can confirm). The Vered Hagalil salad was a fresh and welcome component considering it was a hot summer day, however I found it to be a little bland- perhaps a little bit more acidity and seasoning would put it right on the money. I’d also say the same about the trio of dips and pita- the textures were on-point; the pita full of the right amount of stretchy chewy doughy bliss and the dips just the right amount of chunky. The only thing was the bread could have used a bit more salt and the dips, a little more seasoning and oomph.

If you’re a fan of seafood, then you will love the offerings at MEC. I’m a relatively new fan of seafood (and still a slightly hesitant one). I admit I’ve never eaten something with it’s head attached and I also tend to avoid octopus or anything else that I might have to chew a few seconds too long. The calamari however was great! Lightly fried, not fishy in the least and fabulously balanced with the acidity of the ouzo, lemon and tomato sauce. The Chreime (Tripolitany Jewish Fish Stew) was also a pleasant surprise- I initially expected some sort of soup full of various ambiguous sea creatures but instead I got a generous portion of lean white fish dunked in what seemed to be a harissa type of sauce.

Being the carnivore I was born to be, the final set of savory courses was my favourite. And a huge part of it may surprisingly have been due to the potatoes- scrumptious Greekified steak frites roasted in a melange of spices. The lamb chops were also beautifully seasoned- and in some of my favourite flavours- oregano, garlic and lemon. As for the lamb ragu and hummus- I wanted to be impressed and being the hummus and meat fiend I am, I had been looking forward to this course. However, I do admit I found the hummus to be a little underwhelming, I’d like to go back and taste it again without the background noise of all the prior courses, but I found the texture to be a bit stiff and lacking the creamy viscous-ness that I associate with the world’s favourite chickpea dip.

Dessert however…

Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore
Rose Water Panna Cotta with pistachio caramel and accompanied by Marco di Bartolia Marsala Superiore

Yes! This dessert course was a winner; light and guilt-less and a harmonious way to pair rosewater and pistachios. Along with dessert, per the usual PFA protocol each guest was presented with an envelope of goodies; goodies in the form of giftcards to three of Gorham’s favourite establishments. And really, I couldn’t be more excited about the selection we received:

1) A $20 Dining Certificate to Ringside Steakhouse (or Fish House)

2) A $10 Gift Card to Måurice; an adorable new lunch and gourmet dessert cafe

3) A $20 Gift Certificate to Serratto

Really, if you’re looking for an evening out on the town savouring the bounty of Portland’s best chefs in the company of other food-admirers, then attending a Portland Food Adventure is the way to go. You get a lengthy tasting menu with drink pairings and $50 worth of gift certificates so you can go and find another new favourite place. This particular PFA was priced at $125 and you can see which other ones are on the docket for the next couple of months so that you can plan out your next date night right at this link!

A huge thanks to Chef John Gorham and his lovely wife, Renee for hosting this delectable event and I look forward to trying MEC again in the near future. They will be open limited hours Wednesday-Sunday from 5:30-10 PM on a walk-in basis from July 16th-July 31st and will begin taking reservations on August 1st!

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