IT IS REALLY, REALLY HARD to spend $10 on hummus and pita—even if John Gorham is involved.
Mediterranean Exploration Company is the latest outing from Gorham, the mind behind Tasty n Sons/Alder and Toro Bravo. MEC's menu sails the warm seas of Southern Europe and North Africa, with fluffy pitas and kebabs slung from a stainless-steel open kitchen. But four months in, it feels like the compass is still spinning—and that's pretty tough to take from a guy as good at food as Gorham.
Unlike the Spanish tapas offered at Toro—revolutionary for this city when it opened—and the eclectic brunches at the Tastys, MEC is stepping into a crowded market... and compensating by charging three times what you'd pay at established favorites like Nicholas or Hoda's. MEC is at its best when it elevates familiar dishes with grace and enhanced flavor—certain dishes are truly destination dining. In the middle are classics at prices that are tough to swallow. At its worst, MEC is at the crossroads of jarring flavors and poorly pulled-off technique.
Chief offenders include a $14 plate with hummus, lamb ragu, and a wallop of honey; it's a dish only a Pooh Bear could love. It sent my senses into scary places that begged for a break from the sweet and fatty lamb flopped over mashed chickpeas. A grilled pita and kofta sandwich—AKA the "MEC burger"—is a sad, thin patty of spiced beef with feta cheese with three limp pickled radish "fries" served on the side for $12. (It replaced an equally uninspired $12 gyro.) It's a compelling argument that not every Portland restaurant needs a burger. The kebabs, three for $21, were varied, with the chicken slightly underseasoned, while the Nazareth kebab with beef, lamb, pine nuts, and onion was overpowering; we left the last bites up for grabs.
If you're here, you're going to spend some money. So go with the $40 per person tasting menu, which offers a mezza of smaller portions to share, allowing you to get some good stuff without the odious task of paying $9 for falafel. The menu is markedly pork-free, in deference to the region, and it's not really missed. The tasting menu is a parade of favorites, including a heavily spiced mejadara ($11) of rice, lentils, and fried onion—Lebanese comfort food defined. Youvetsi ($12), a baked orzo with rich beef ragu and a generous hit of cheese, pays homage to Greek mamas who serve straight from the ceramic baking dish. These dishes are well done and homey, but they also fail to push their humble ingredients to the level of fine dining that a Gorham experience demands.
While the grill offered some major stumbles, it's also where MEC hits the right marks. A half portion of two Greek lamb chops ($13) was rare, tender, and swimming in a gremolata of oregano, lemon, and garlic. I admit, I gnawed the bone. An octopus leg with piquillo pepper and dill arrives whole on the plate, suction cups lightly charred and the meat nearly fork tender. (Pro-tip: Try to tell yourself that somewhere in the seas there are thousands of octopi still alive and happy, frolicking... with seven legs.)
The cocktail menu, which plays with flavors like Aleppo pepper, harissa bitters, and rosewater, is a happy resting place. (My favorite: the Turkish Delight with Sobieski vodka, Ceylon tea, lemon, orange bitters, and orange blossom water for $9.) Ultimately though, it's not clear that MEC will develop the crazy three-hour wait times and slave-like devotion of Gorham's other restaurants. (One time I was elbow-checked by a dad in khaki shorts hustling for a table when Toro Bravo opened for dinner.) A sign MEC lacks that sort of desperate crush: It's the only restaurant in the family that takes reservations for small parties. Let's see where time and some insightful menu tweaks take this Exploration Company.
Sun-Thurs 4-10 pm; Fri-Sat 4-11 pm. Happy hour daily 4-5:30 pm. Reservations available.