After spending the month of July visiting various burger destinations in the region, I will admit I enjoyed visiting a restaurant without a burger listed anywhere on the menu.
The Mediterranean Garden in Johnson City is a welcome gem for those interested in sampling international cuisines. By my count, there are now options for those interested in cuisines as diverse as Thai and Indian, as well as Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and much more.
I had been wanting to pay my initial visit to Mediterranean Garden for some time, but an invitation from some friends sped up the process. I liked my first visit so much I have already been back for a second one.
The restaurant is a work-in-progress as the family-owned enterprise works to ready an even larger dining area at the current location.
Even if things are not entirely settled, I loved the atmosphere of the cozy dining area currently offered at Mediterranean Garden.
The dining area featured green walls accented with a lot of exposed brickwork. Tables with green surfaces are arranged around cushioned benches and chairs. Sheer fabric hangings of different colors hang over the large windows to give the room an airy, open feel. Likewise, elaborate fabric hangings adorn several of the walls. The family that owns and operates the restaurant is of Turkish and Greek heritage, so I assume that most of the interesting decorative items on view around the restaurant are also of Turkish and Greek origins. A gleaming coffee service, figurines of dancing men in fezzes and a pair of smiling toy sheep are among the items on display.
There’s also a decorative glass, rope and bead artifact known as a “nazar” hanging on one wall. The intention of the symbol, as explained by our server, is to ward off the “evil eye.” Some online research also revealed that nazars are popular souvenirs in such countries as Turkey and Afghanistan.
Some welcoming aromas wafted as far as the parking lot when we arrived at the restaurant. When we entered, a helpful server showed us to an available table, provided menus and took our beverage orders.
If you’ve never tried Mediterranean or Middle Eastern fare, don’t worry. The excellent servers at Mediterranean Garden will gladly answer any of your questions. While the food is well-spiced, I would not describe it as spicy in the “hot” sense. The menu’s focus is primarily on Turkish/Greek specialties with many of the dishes prepared from lamb, chicken and beef, as well as lentils, eggplant, chickpeas and other vegetables.
My friends and I began the meal by looking over appetizer options, which ranged from better-known meal-starters such as Baba Ganoush, Falafel and different varieties of Hummus, as well as Sigara Boregi, which is gently pan-fried dough rolled into “cigar” shapes and stuffed with feta cheese, and Patlican Kizartmasi, which is a dish made of roasted sliced eggplant served with tomato slices and yogurt sauce. We had a large party, so we ordered several different appetizers — Dolma, Sigara Boregi, Jalapeno Hummus and Patlican Kizartmasi — to share.
The Dolma, or Stuffed Grape Leaves, was some of the best I’ve had. These fresh grape leaves were filled with rice, onions, parsley, dill and olive oil.
The Jalapeno Hummus was interesting, but in truth the jalapenos overwhelmed the hummus, which is basically a dip prepared from chickpeas. I would prefer cutting back on the amount of jalapenos introduced into this item.
The Sigara Boregi was the biggest hit of the appetizer offerings. The thin, feta-stuffed pastries were served with some Tzatziki sauce for dipping.
A personal favorite was the Patlican Kizartmasi, which tasted light and quite refreshing. As much as we enjoyed these festive and tasty appetizers, the best was yet to come.
Some of the house specials include Lamb Chops, Tavuk Á la Sultan, or Grilled Chicken Breast with garlic, oregano, fresh tomato, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese, served over rice, and Musakka.
For diners with pronounced anti-carnivorous tendencies, Mediterranean Garden offers an extensive Vegan menu, listing such dishes as Eggplant Yogurt Kebab, Fresh Vegetable Kebab, Vegetarian Musakka, Falafel Sandwich, Hummus Sandwich and Turkish Veggie Stew.
There are also some salads, including White Bean, Tabouleh and Shepherd Salad, as well as sandwiches and gyros.
A range of different kebabs are offered as house specials. These skewered and grilled cubes of meat can be ordered with bread, with salad or with rice. Meat for the kebabs include lamb, chicken or beef, and combinations of these.
The two dishes I’ve enjoyed so far at Mediterranean Garden are the Iskender Kebab and the Garden Combo III, which features chunks of lamb loin and a ground lamb sausage, served with grilled vegetables and rice.
Some of my friends have tried the Musakka, which is a casserole dish made with layers of eggplant, ground sirloin, béchamel sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. I’ve tried this dish at several other restaurants, and thanks to the sample my friend offered I can say that it’s the best example of this dish I’ve ever had.
The rice that comes with the dishes is light, fluffy and enhanced with slivers of almonds and subtle spices.
As an alternative to rice, the kebab dishes can also be served with warm pita bread.
Several of the dishes were also served with small salads made from lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, black olives and a refreshing Greek-style dressing.
The kebabs are also served with grilled vegetables, such as bell peppers and tomatoes.
On my second visit, I tried one of the House Specials — the Iskender Kebab. This exceptional dish featured slices of doner, or gyro, that is served over sauteed garlic pita bread in a yogurt-tomato sauce.
One of my friends also tried the Mix Grill Kebab. In addition to chicken, lamb and beef, this platter also offered a well-prepared, perfectly seasoned lamb chop.
Save some room for a dessert, which you can savor with a Turkish coffee. Sweet options included Baklava and Rice Pudding.
I concluded my first meal at Mediterranean Garden with a Rice Pudding and a cup of Turkish coffee. The delightful pudding featured a sweet, smooth mix of rice and cream dusted with cinnamon. It went well with the coffee. Turkish coffee is a strong coffee and is served in small, delicate coffee cups. Be sure to ask your server to share the secret for “reading” the coffee grounds in your cup once you have finished the beverage. I’m not sure I ever got the knack for it, but it is a fun cultural experience they’re happy to share with their customers.
Speaking of the service, all the staff have been exceptionally friendly and personable during both my visits. They really know how to treat their customers and make them feel right at home.
It’s an extensive menu, and although I have been very pleased with everything I’ve tried, I hope to continue working my way through all the intriguing dishes listed.
If you go, be sure to let them know they came highly recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Mediterranean Garden, 2203 McKinley Road, Suite 100, Johnson City. 328-7685. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 9 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Entrees range from $4.99-$19.99. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available. Catering available.