By Nicole Berrie
Photography by Justin Namont / ra-haus
AMIDST THE GLITZY HOTEL LOBBIES, SLICK STEAKHOUSES AND TRENDY EATERIES from New York and Los Angeles, Mandolin Aegean Bistro is of a different ilk. The charming restaurant owned by Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis has lured loyal patrons to its outdoor garden and fresh Mediterranean fare since quietly opening its doors in 2009 and beats to a different drum when it comes to South Floridian hospitality. Unlike its contemporaries, Mandolin eschews a flashy clientele for discerning locals, hip creatives and in-the-know visitors who all flock to the authentic atmosphere, which could easily recalls a classic taverna in the Greek isles. And then there’s the food. The menu, which blends both Erkaya and Koutsioukis’ Turkish and Greek upbringings offers seasonal dishes like the classic Greek village salad or more innovative appetizers like the Pink Sultan, a vibrant dish of shredded beets topped with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and fresh mint. Over a platter of grilled lamb and vegetables, Ms. Koutsioukis describes how Mandolin was born five years ago over a bottle of wine. (Erkaya couldn’t help but send over a plate of perfectly crisped french fries topped with tangy yoghurt, his childhood favorite.) “We flew to Miami on holiday, rented a scooter and fell in love with the city,” she recalls. “It was very spontaneous.” As for the ingredient-based menu? “I like to experiment a lot with our daily specials,” said Ms. Koutsioukis. “Most of which are inspired by our travels.”
What was the original concept of Mandolin?
We always had a dream of opening a place together. Ahmet is Turkish and I’m Greek and Greeks and Turks are historical rivals. I started doing a lot of research about our cultures and found out how similar we are through food and music and how much overlap there was. We refer to it as Aegean food because that is the body of water they share.
Why did you open in Miami and not New York?
Our dream was to retire, open a pension in a small island but we didn’t want to leave our families and we ended up falling in love in Miami. We used to travel here all the time and we were just always craving something more local and there weren’t that many options.
Do you believe Miami is evolving towards the locavore movement?
Absolutely. There’s a small creative collective that’s working diligently. Miami is a big small town. There is this community and people are much more interested. When I first moved here four years ago, coming from living in the East Village and being able to walk to the farmer’s market, we took all that for granted. We thought this is Florida, you’d be able to find this in abundance and it wasn’t the case.
What is the difference between the health/foodie scene here in New York versus Miami?
People take care of themselves here. They’re very visual, but they don’t necessarily have that connection to source. But there’s this new renaissance of young chefs that are breaking off from the hotel restaurants and opening their own smaller spots that have more of a soul and a unique perspective on food. It’s happening with independent businesses like Panther Coffee, jugofresh and Michael’s Genuine and what they’re doing at Cypress Room using all the local ingredients. They’ve been the pioneers of that.
How important is where you source your ingredients?
We’re so conscious of where we source our ingredients. We won’t serve anything that we wouldn’t personally eat. All of our lamb is organic. Our fish is locally sourced as much as we can. We work closely with farms and purveyors that are passionate about it. We’re just more conscious of what we’re putting into our bodies and more knowledgeable.
Why is seafood your main focus at the restaurant?
When you’re in the Greek islands, there’s nothing like the fresh seafood. That’s what we do more at Mandolin, for us it goes well with the Miami lifestyle. In terms of climate it’s closest to the Mediterranean.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I love our grilled tiger prawns, which are very simply grilled. But I can eat certain things everyday. I love the kopoglu, which is a vegetable dish of eggplant, zucchini, roast peppers and potatoes. It’s so hearty and you top it with Greek garlic yoghurt and a fresh tomato puree. It’s so good.
How has the reception been since opening?
We came, started super small and kept growing. Everybody didn’t treat us like a typical restaurant. We wanted it to be good old fashioned word of mouth. Your product, passion and generosity should speak for itself. That was one of the biggest epiphanies I had when I moved here. When you’re living an honest life and living your truth, everything else just leads you to new experiences and likeminded people. That’s when you know that you’re totally vibing.