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 email@example.com.