Meet Meditrina

Prolific restaurateurs bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to downtown's most colorful eatery.

Meditrina, which opened in May 2006 where Café Samovar used to be, bears the same name as the Roman goddess of wine and health. Specializing in Mediterranean cooking drawn from various cuisines along that fabled sea from France to Morocco, but focusing on Greece and Spain, the restaurant uses virtually no butter or cream. Instead, you'll see plenty of olive oil, seafood, fresh vegetables, garlic, and citrus, as well as an emphasis on sharing many different dishes with everyone at the table.

The executive chef is Demitrie Phillips, who had most recently worked in the kitchen of Tsunami for four years. (He's also co-owner of this latest venture with Tsunami proprietors Ben Smith and Thomas Boggs.) Before that, Phillips cooked for at least

ten different restaurants both in and out of Memphis including Automatic Slim's Tonga Club, In Limbo, and Mantia's, and also studied at the New England Culinary Institute.

In keeping with its Mediterranean theme, the restaurant sports bright gold walls, orange and tomato-red accents, bold artwork, and a funky multicolored mosaic-wrapped column. It's small and casual. The lunch menu and dinner menu are completely different from one another, and in the evenings there is also a small-plates menu that changes daily, each dish paired with a wine available by the glass.

Our first trip to Meditrina was for dinner, where we focused more on the main menu than the constantly changing small-plates menu. We shared the popular Meditrina meze appetizer, a festive platter of good-quality olives, paprika-coated almonds, and toasted pita wedges with two sauces. One was a mild tzatziki (a traditional Greek yogurt sauce), the other a feta dill sauce peppy with strong feta flavor.

The gambas al ajillo consisted of large fresh shrimp coated with paprika and slow-cooked in olive oil and garlic. The fried polenta consisted of little half moons of polenta with a slight crust, served with a smoky cayenne and tomato sauce that was spicy-hot in a very smooth, balanced way. The pureed cantaloupe soup was not as fruity-sweet as might be expected, instead rendered somewhat savory by sautéed shallots. It was like a pumpkin soup with a cantaloupe edge.

For entrées we had the seared scallops, nice big ones, lightly browned and just barely cooked in the center (I actually would have preferred them cooked a bit more to eliminate the last trace of gelatinous rawness). It was served with a subtle ouzo buerre blanc and a little fried kataifi (this is the crisp phyllo you find in Greek pastries that looks like shredded wheat). My favorite dish was the grilled lamb chops, a generous portion of a rack with a surprising sauce, bright with fresh mint and fresh tomatoes, and accompanied with wedges of potato. It was perfectly cooked to order.

Two other entrees were actually from the small-plates menu. The bouillabaisse was a rather plain-Jane version of this famous stew, with smallish chunks of shrimp, tuna, and scallops, and an agreeable tomato sauce. It was accompanied by a red-pepper rouille, which was fine but so mild it made us yearn for a spunky aioli on the side. The roasted Coho salmon with asparagus and orzo was a delightful pairing of tender salmon with refreshing citrus-flavored orzo pasta.

At lunch we tried two soups, both of them fresh and lovely. The white bean soup consisted of firm white beans, minced red bell pepper, and fresh dill in a simple broth. The chilled bright green pea and mint soup tasted nicely of fresh mint and peas but arrived warm as bathwater.

From the sandwich menu we tried the chilled seared tuna, which included slices of grilled portobella mushrooms and pickled red onions that added an interesting bite, all served on toasted ciabatta. It was okay, but the flavors didn't come together that well. The coca was described as Spanish-style pizza, but in reality was a combination of grilled vegetables and other ingredients piled onto a big, thick, unremarkable cracker. The red bell pepper, squash, and other vegetables were delicious, tossed with fresh herbs and bits of chicken and feta as well. Both came with side salads, a nice mix of lettuces dressed with a plain vinaigrette that had just enough bite. (Some good-looking freshly made potato chips were an option as well.)

The standout for lunch was the pasta of the day, bucatini (thick, hollow spaghetti) mixed with fresh tomatoes, basil, other vegetables, feta and olive oil and topped with three nice grilled shrimp. It was scrumptious and filling, fresh ingredients all melding together deliciously in a way that just didn't happen with the sandwich.

The desserts were a breath of fresh air, when measured against the usual restaurant line-up of créme brûlée, Key lime pie, and a chocolate brownie concoction. We later learned they are the handiwork of pastry chef Jorge Noriega. Ouzo chocolate pudding was a dense chocolate-espresso combination with a whisper of anise flavor. The flan was delectable, tinged with buttermilk flavor and served in a small ocean of caramel.

The most unusual desserts were also the most memorable. The almond pie had a tender crumbly texture and seemed as if it had been made entirely of almonds. It was served with slices of strawberries and slivers of kalamata olives. It may sound weird, but the combination of almond and strawberry with the intense olive was incredible. Ditto for the Pavlova, which consisted of crunchy black-pepper-flecked meringues with sliced strawberries and a bit of creamy custard.

Meditrina's service was friendly, happy, and personal, and while we got all of our food as ordered, some lapses and misinformation occurred. For example, the pudding was not like a mousse, and the tuna sandwich did not have caramelized onions. Lunch service was particularly disjointed. We appreciate it when restaurant staff respects our limited time for lunch, but we had barely sat down when we were asked for our order. When we asked that "chilled" pea soup that was served warm be cooled down, it took forever for it to reappear, cooler but definitely not chilled. We were offered the check before our dessert order was taken, and then dessert arrived in a to-go container. True, we had ordered a to-go entrée toward the end of our meal, but we did not want our dessert to go.

Meditrina maintains a modest wine list with 18 whites, a few rosés and sparkling wines, and 23 reds by the bottle, priced mostly in the $25 to $40 range. Of these, 14 are available by the glass (sometimes more if they're matched with an item on the small plate). The wines represent several Mediterranean countries, including France, Spain, and Italy.

At its best, Meditrina demonstrates what can be done when fresh, colorful vegetables, herbs, and other ingredients meld together. I'm thinking of the shrimp and vegetable pasta, the lamb with tomato-mint vinaigrette, and the white bean soup. Everything we had, though, was well-prepared and flavorful (and we say that having barely touched the intriguing small-plates menu with its wine pairings). The desserts -- particularly those with oddball ingredients such as olives and black pepper -- added a fun, whimsical touch to our experience. So did the restaurant's circus colors and intimate scale. As for service, while the staff covers the basics and is extremely enthusiastic about the food, both timing and accuracy in recommendations could use some work. 

For other details, go to Memphis Magazine's searchable restaurant listings entry for Meditrina.

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