Valentine’s Day

Owners of Miami’s Mandolin Bistro share their Greek-Turkish love story


At Mandolin Bistro, a Greek-Turkish couple proves ancient animosities are no match for true romance and honest food

If you go

Mandolin Aegean Bistro is at 4312 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-576-6066,

Main Dish

Shrimp Saganaki (Shrimp Sauté With Tomatoes and Feta)

Buy a chunk of good quality Greek feta and crumble it yourself. Koutsioukis says that most pre-crumbled feta is dry and tasteless. If using wine, pour it from the same bottle you’ll be serving with this dish. Serve this with baguette for dipping into the flavorful sauce.

3 tablespoons Greek olive oil

1 white onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed or finely chopped

2 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes or canned San Marzano tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)

12 large Florida shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 cup dry white wine

Ouzo (optional)

1 cup crumbled Greek feta

1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley plus a sprig for garnish

Heat olive oil in a nonreactive large skillet over low heat. Add onions and garlic; sauté 3 to 5 minutes, until translucent.

Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add salt, pepper, oregano and pepper flakes. Let simmer until sauce reduces and thickens. Add shrimp and cook 3 minutes or until shrimp turn pink.

Add wine and continue cooking 2 minutes. If desired, add a splash of ouzo.

Fold in feta and chopped parsley. Remove from heat and serve warm in a shallow serving dish garnished with a parsley sprig. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis of Mandolin Aegean Bistro.

Per serving: 258 calories (63 percent from fat), 18.6 g fat (7 g saturated, 9.2 g monounsaturated), 64 mg cholesterol, 10.5 g protein, 11.2 g carbohydrates, 2.2 g fiber, 1,030 mg sodium.


Village Salad (Horiatiki Salata)

This is a great dish to showcase Florida tomatoes that are now in season. Out of season, Koutsioukis uses Campari tomatoes. Greek feta can be found in the cheese counters of better supermarkets. Try to find one packaged in brine. If the cheese is not packed in brine and seems dry, refresh it by storing the cheese in salt water with a dash of milk, suggests Koutsioukis. And use a Greek olive oil such as the Cretan, which they sell at Mandolin.

4 to 6 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cubed

1/4 small onion, thinly sliced

1/2 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and thinly sliced

Sea salt, to taste

1 (7-ounce) slab Greek feta, crumbled or cubed

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives

1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

Cracked pepper, to taste

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Combine all vegetables in a serving bowl. Add salt, remembering that you will be putting salty feta cheese on top. Arrange feta and olives on top of vegetables. Sprinkle with oregano and pepper. Present the salad to toss with oil and vinegar at the table. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis of Mandolin Aegean Bistro.

Per serving: 318 calories (72 percent from fat), 26 g fat (9.6 g saturated, 13.5 g monounsaturated), 44 mg cholesterol, 9.3 g protein, 13.5 g carbohydrates, 3.3 g fiber, 687 mg sodium.


Greek Yogurt, Honey and Strawberry Parfaits

Koutsioukis collects vintage crystal wine glasses for serving this dish.

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (preferably Fage)

2 tablespoons whipping cream

3 tablespoons honey (preferably organic), divided

1 vanilla bean

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts

2 cups sliced fresh strawberries

Cinnamon for sprinkling (optional)

4 sprigs fresh mint

In a nonreactive bowl, combine yogurt, cream and 1 teaspoon honey. Slit the vanilla bean and use a butter knife to scrape the inside of the bean into the bowl. Mix until velvety.

On the bottom of each of 4 serving dishes, place 1 teaspoon honey. Add 1 teaspoon chopped nuts. Add a small portion of strawberries and a quarter of the yogurt mixture. Top each with a portion of the remaining strawberries, a sprinkling of nuts and a drizzle of honey.

Sprinkle with cinnamon and garnish each with a mint sprig . Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis of Mandolin Aegean Bistro.

Per serving: 202 calories (49 percent from fat), 11.6 g fat (5.1 g saturated, 1.3 g monounsaturated), 30.2 mg cholesterol, 3.7 g protein, 23.2 g carbohydrates, 1.8 g fiber, 29 mg sodium.


Pink Sultan (Beet Salad with Yogurt and Mint)

Koutsioukis prefers full-fat yogurt (she uses Fage), but you can use a lower fat version if you prefer.

Salt, to taste

3 red beets, washed and leaves removed

1/2 cup Greek yogurt or to taste

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2 tablespoons coarse-chopped fresh mint

Fresh-ground pepper to taste

Fill a large pot two-thirds full with water. Add 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add beets and boil about 30 minutes, until fork tender. Start checking the beets for doneness by piercing with a sharp knife after about 20 minutes. You want them to be tender yet firm; not mushy and overcooked.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water; set aside.

When the beets are cooked, drain them and, while still hot, slip off their skins. This is easy to do with your hands, a paring knife or with a paper towel. But be warned that the beet juice will stain your hands so you may want to use gloves.

Place peeled beets in the ice water bath. Let cool at least 10 minutes. Drain, dry and grate into a nonreactive bowl using the large holes of a box grater.

Add the yogurt, garlic, half the mint and a pinch salt and pepper.

Mix gently until the mixture turns a fuchsia color. For a creamier salad, add more yogurt. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with remaining mint. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from Ahmet Erkaya and Anastasia Koutsioukis of Mandolin Aegean Bistro.

Per serving: 48 calories (9 percent from fat), 0.5 g fat (0.3 g saturated, 0 monounsaturated), 2.5 mg cholesterol, 3.9 g protein, 7.4 g carbohydrates, 1.8 g fiber, 61 mg sodium.

Special to The Miami Herald

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.

Soon after they’d returned to New York, Erkaya took Koutsioukis out to dinner for her 34th birthday. He told her he had “two big things” to give her.

She expected an engagement ring, but instead she got an antique birthstone necklace and an even bigger surprise: Erkaya had signed the lease on a 590-square-foot space in the area of Miami they’d loved.

Her reaction was not what he had expected.

“She was none too amicable about it,” he says.

Opening a restaurant in Miami had seemed like a good idea while on vacation, but now he was talking major life changes.

What finally convinced her to join him in life and business was a folder he’d kept of every recipe they’d prepared together and every idea they’d had about running a restaurant.

“We were ready to go and now we had the brick and mortar to create our dream,” she says.

Coming to Miami, they were faced with refurbishing property that had been abandoned for three years and was run down and covered with graffiti. They labored from 6 a.m. to sundown renovating the 1939 building and filling it with gently used furnishings.

“The house always had a kind of energy we wanted to preserve,” Koutsioukis says. “We wanted to be careful we didn’t change its spirit or look.”

Soon after the restaurant opened, a customer gave them a black-and-white photo album that had been found in a dumpster when the property was deserted. The pictures proved they had returned the house to the way it used to be.

And in the back of the album were notes written in French on old postcards. When Erkaya translated them, he discovered the original owners had a similar love story to their own.

The man had persuaded his love to leave Montreal and come to Miami to marry him. He quit his job with Flagler’s railroad and together they lived in the house at the back of the property that today is part of the restaurant. They ran a beauty salon at the front of the property in what is the restaurant’s kitchen.

This year, Koutsioukis and Erkaya will spend Valentine’s Day at their restaurant. They’ll sit down to dinner together or with customers who have become good friends. And they’ll take time to toast their union with a glass of champagne.

“Every day is Valentine’s Day for us,” says Erkaya as Koutsioukis smiles and nods her head in total agreement.

You can reach Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley at

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