Eavesdropping rewarded with trip to Johnson City's Mediterranean Garden

Mystery Diner • Jun 8, 2012 at 11:28 AM

I’ve been asked, “How do you choose the restaurants you visit?”

A fair question. More often than not, the restaurants I review come from my keeping my eyes and ears open. My latest effort started with my mailing a package. I was standing in line at the Post Office, when I happened to catch a fragment of conversation from over my shoulder:

“... and it was good. I mean, really good! Best Tavuk A’la Saltan I’ve had since I don’t know when.”

“Where is this place?”

“Off Walnut Street in the old Burlington building.”

Taking note of the last phrase, I gathered my dine-around friends and went looking for the latest addition to Johnson City’s restaurant scene. What we found was the Mediterranean Garden, right where my Post Office friend said it would be.

To say that the Mediterranean Garden is just another purveyor of Middle Eastern cuisine is to do them an injustice. Their specialty is more correctly categorized as eastern Mediterranean, specifically Turkish and eastern Aegean. As such, familiar dishes such as babaganush and musakka in the hands of the restaurant’s chefs become truly unique in their preparation and presentation. You also find a number of regional dishes whose origins range from Izmir on the Turkish Riviera to the Anatolian highlands.

Lunch is served from 11 to 5 Monday through Saturday, providing both a convenient time and a good introduction to the restaurant and its bill of fare. The lunch menu features both gyros and sandwiches of the meat and meatless variety, along with a number of salads and sides to order.

Being a lapsed vegetarian, I was all set to chow down on the Garden’s excellent Falafel sandwich ($5.99). Then I saw a fellow diner receive his Kofte sandwich ($7.99), the sizzling beef aroma from which re-awoke the carnivore in me. As veggie penance, I ordered the side salad instead of the fries. I then dug into a soft pita wrap containing three medium-well “slider”-sized patties of very lean beef mixed with mint, served with onions, lettuce, ripe red peppers and tzatziki cucumber sauce. The creation was so full of ingredients I had to resort to knife and fork so as not to miss any of it.

Meantime, my two companions were enjoying a Hummus Sandwich ($4.49), and the Chicken Gyros ($5.49) respectively. The Hummus sandwich featured lettuce, sliced onions and tomatoes served on a pita slathered with the Garden’s excellent home made red pepper hummus. My other companion, not being a big fan of lamb, found the sliced chicken breast used in the Gyros a tasty substitute, even more so with a side of the same red pepper hummus that was being enjoyed across the table. With drinks, the cost of our lunch for three was $25, tip included.

With lunch being such a success, dinner was sure to be more of the same, and better. Besides, I was itching to try the Tavuk A’la Saltan. As our other friends had a previous engagement, my dining partner joined me for a casual supper a few days later.

After seating us, our server asked if we wanted to start with an appetizer. We ordered the hummus with roasted red pepper ($4.75) and the Patlikan Kizartma ($5.95) eggplant sliced thin, then quick-fried and served with a yogurt garlic sauce. Accompanying the appetizers was a good portion of warm flat-bread for dipping.

Since we decided to share our entree, my partner ordered a mixed green salad ($4.75) and I opted for the aforementioned Tavuk A’la Saltan ($16.50). Being an entree, this last came with a mixed green salad of its own.’

While waiting, we got started on our appetizers. The hummus, a puree of chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil, was just the thing to put on the accompanying flat-bread, and made an excellent counterpoint to the tartness of the Patlikan Kizartma’s eggplant slices sauteed with tomato and onion.

Thanks to our attentive server, our mixed green salads arrived at an appropriate time to prepare our palates for the upcoming main course.

In due course, the Tavuk A’la Saltan made its appearance at table. I’d never had this dish before, and because of my Post Office eavesdropping, I was curious to see what it was. The menu description, “A chicken breast grilled with fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, spiced with garlic and oregano, then served with rice and vegetables” hardly does it justice. Long before the dish arrived at our table, we were teased with the enticing aromas of its preparation not 30 feet from our table.

Upon its appearance, we could tell that the appetizing aromas weren’t lying. The first thing you notice is that the spices were used correctly, and in the right quantity. I’ve had chicken dishes where too much oregano made everything taste like kerosene, and garlic-spiced dishes where further conversation between the diners had to be carried out by texting. Not here.

You want to take your time with the Garden’s Tavuk A’la Saltan. Each forkful of chicken, adorned with the odd tomato and mushroom and briefly swirled through a golden sauce redolent of garlic and oregano, is not to be gulped. This is a dish to give your palate a good workout. Take your time, pause between bites, and truly savor this dish. My partner shared my enthusiasm. Our dining became a good-natured competition for its remaining morsels.

Alas, in life there is a price to be paid for such pleasures, and dining at the Mediterranean Garden is no exception. Our dinner for two totaled just under $40, drinks and tip included. And yet, it isn’t often you get the pleasure of a new sensory experience in dining, and Tavuk A’la Saltan from the Mediterranean Garden certainly counts as one.

My thanks to you, my Post Office friend, who gave me the tip on this great dish from a great new restaurant.

Mediterranean Garden at Burlington

2203 McKinley Road


Mon-Thu 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Fri -Sat 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Credit Cards Accepted

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