Entering the courtyard through the sky-blue gate, you’ll see families with children seated around wooden tables laughing and enjoying themselves. Groups of friends relax in the blue canvas chairs as they look over the menu of Greek and Turkish dishes. At smaller tables, couples sip wine as they dip into meze or appetizers.
Overhead, a sail-like white canvas awning shades them from the sun. And aromas of fresh chopped dill and parsley, browning garlic and the nuttiest olive oil waft from the small kitchen up front. Some of these ingredients are only minutes away from their roots, having been harvested from the half-acre organic garden out back.
You could be at a taverna on a Greek island or in Turkey, but this is Mandolin Aegean Bistro just north of Miami’s Design District. It’s a place where people come for the romantic atmosphere as well as the simple, honest fare.
Co-owners Ahmet Erkaya, 45, and Anastasia Koutsioukis, 38, work with local farmers and purveyors to procure the bold ingredients of their childhood and prepare them with the Greek and Turkish techniques they learned from their mothers and grandmothers.
“Our food is an expression of our love, our traditions and our lifestyle,” says Koutsioukis. And when asked, the loving couple were only too happy to provide a festive Valentine’s Day menu.
Whether it’s the Pink Sultan salad made of grated beets mixed with yogurt and mint, the Village Salad that appears on just about every Greek and Turkish table or the shrimp saganaki that features a spicy tomato sauce spiked with feta cheese, their menu has a particularly heart-pink hue to it.
They round it out with a festive parfait of strawberries, walnuts and Greek yogurt sweetened with honey and vanilla, making these the perfect heart-healthy dishes to share for Valentine’s Day.
Koutsioukis and Erkaya met in 1998 while they were living in New York. They began to date, and then the fireworks happened. But not the kind you might expect.
It didn’t take long for Koutsioukis to realize that Erkaya is Turkish. And that was a problem. Koutsioukis, who is Greek, had been raised to think of Turks as the enemy. After all, the Greeks and Turks had fought, invaded and occupied each other’s territories for centuries.
“I knew that by falling in love we were walking into difficult territory that would be hard to explain to my family,” she says.
But, as Romeo and Juliet could attest, the forbidden nature of their attraction made it all the more powerful.
“That’s the nature of love,” Erkaya says.
As the couple continued to date, they dreamed.
“From the beginning we wanted to open a restaurant that would make a political statement as well as nourish our love,” says Koutsioukis. They wanted to prove that Turks and Greeks can live — and eat — in harmony.
Cooking together, they soon discovered that their mothers had prepared many of the same dishes, like stuffed grape leaves. And they enjoyed the same kinds of music.
“We shared more than just love,” Koutsioukis says. “Our cultures were really very much alike.”
In 2009, they left Manhattan to vacation in Miami. Touring the city by scooter, they were “smitten” by the historic neighborhood of Buena Vista East. “We were impressed that such a place existed,” Koutsioukis says.