When friends who used to live in the Middle East came to visit Maine recently, the four of us decided to visit the Mediterranean Grill in Freeport.

Since 2004, co-owners and brothers Kemal and Erkan Cigri have been bringing authentic flavors from their native Turkey to this spot located just off Route 1’s stretch of retail outlets. Kemal works the front of the house; Erkan is the chef. He uses many of their mother’s recipes in the restaurant.

Turkish food fuses cuisine from surrounding regions — the Middle East, Balkans, Central Asia and Western Europe. Yogurt is frequently consumed (the English word derives from the Turkish), as are eggplant, leeks, potatoes, nuts, legumes, lamb, ground meat and some seafood.

Within the country, regions differ in how they season dishes, although parsley, oregano, thyme, mint, red pepper, cumin and olive oil are common.

My friend loves hummus, and makes it all the time. He wanted to try it at Mediterranean Grill, where the cook adds homemade yogurt to the mashed chickpeas, garlic and tahini. But they were out of this standard and popular spread, which was surprising at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Babaghannush, an eggplant puree, ably stood in ($6.50). The mix was milder than my friends were used to — less garlicky and missing a roasted taste, which was probably due to regional differences — but we enjoyed it all the same.


We added another delectable appetizer, shredded carrots mixed with garlic and yogurt ($5.95), to our mezze table. We dipped the two appetizers, along with the house’s seasoned olive oil — it is infused with pomegranate paste and other spices — in slices of their homemade bread, which resembled Italian but is traditional. “We use flatbread for sandwiches,” Kemal said later when I asked about the round loaf.

A nicely composed salad of mixed greens, pistachios, sunflower seeds, raisins and cow’s milk feta cheese in a homemade balsamic vinaigrette ($8.95) completed our introductory course. (Worth noting is the fact that the restaurant’s appetizer of sliced feta uses sheep’s milk cheese imported from Turkey.)

The tang of yogurt and the low heat of cumin and red pepper primed our palates for the main course. Once we got beyond the disappointing news that the kitchen’s homemade iskender — gyro meat of beef and lamb made on traditional cone spit, shaved thin, and served with red pepper and tomato sauce — was not available, we enjoyed our entrees quite a bit. The gyro meat takes four to five hours to prepare, and they sold out at lunch, Kemal told me later.

Chicken kofte was four slider-sized patties of ground chicken with a char-grilled flavor and spiced to a mild heat. It was moist with the seasoned olive oil, and topped with a mushroom sauce ($17.95). Delicious.

Large cubes of well-done lamb shish kebabs served off their skewer bore an earthy and deep flavor ($25.95). A golden and custardy bechamel topped a robust vegetable musakka. The baked dish was a tasty medley of potato, eggplant and plenty of soft onions ($15.95) in a creamy sauce with bite.

The hearty tiropita ($17.95) resembled a French-Canadian tourtiere in appearance. Ground beef sauteed with herbs and plenty of onions and garlic came encased in a large, pie-like package of golden, crusty phyllo. Dip forkfuls of meat and pastry into a mushroom or tangy red sauce, and you’ll end up full and happy.


Two of us began with red lentil soup ($2.50 when added to an entree) that was barely thicker than water. This texture may be surprising to Westerners, but it is customary. Likewise, the side of mostly green beans cooked so soft that they lose their shape (think of your grandmother’s) is the traditional Turkish preparation. I liked this mound of spicy, pulpy vegetables.

The dining room is a high-ceilinged, spacious square with no nooks and a raised platform at one end. Red-cushioned bench seating and black wood chairs tuck into tables, some with tin surfaces. It’s comfortable, but not cozy. Framed pop and Art Deco-like posters that suggest Europe, not the Middle East, hang on the walls as incongruous accents. The bar area occupies the front room, which has a few tables and a door to an outdoor patio.

The milieu is that of a casual, established eatery. We felt welcomed. As for service on the night we visited, our waitress was polite and informative when pressed, but a little halfhearted.

One bit of advice: Do not miss the baklava here. Erkan takes pride and a lot of time constructing this many-layered, phyllo pastry dessert oozing with honey and pistachio nuts. And it shows. You’ll get three fresh, delectable squares for $5.95.

Add a cup of Turkish coffee to the finish. Not only is the small cup served from a traditional hanging tray, the brew is strong and pre-sweetened, and the very fine grinds coat the bottom like silt. Your palate will linger happily in faraway lands.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives near Portland.


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