Makani

Almost a year and a half after starting The Saboscrivner, I can’t say this blog has become a big breakthrough success.  I choose to not use Instagram, always preferring a thousand words to a single picture.  I don’t use that website that rhymes with “help,” and I’ll never become “help” elite.  I’m the furthest thing from an influencer, since nobody wants to look at photos of me posing, trying to look cute while holding up the delicious foods I eat, trust me.  I have literally DOZENS of followers, but at least I’ve made a mint off my food writing — one night, I got a single peppermint after paying my bill.

But my life is still better for it, because now when old friends pass through Orlando, they are much more likely to send me a Facebook message, inviting me to catch up over dinner, figuring I’ll pick a good restaurant.  At least my reputation has grown that way, and I’ve been able to see and reconnect with good people I miss, who I haven’t seen in far too many years.  Best of all, we can go to nicer places than I could afford back in the day.

This past week, I heard from an old friend from my college days in Gainesville.  We hadn’t seen each other in over 15 years, and probably closer to 20.  Back then he was one of the coolest people I had ever met, and he helped change my life for the better when I played in a band with him (and another friend I caught up with over a similar dinner at Chuan Lu Garden early this year).  I always looked up to this guy as a fascinating punk rock poet and general badass, and now he’s even cooler as a tireless advocate and activist for the homeless in Gainesville.  He was in town for a conference and staying down near International Drive, so I made a list of restaurants near there that I thought he might like, that I’ve also been wanting to try.  That’s all the way across town from me, and I don’t make it down there very often.

So we decided on Makani (https://www.facebook.com/makaniorlando/), an Egyptian restaurant on International Drive, tucked into a truly international shopping plaza with an upscale steakhouse, a Chinese buffet, a traditional Japanese restaurant, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/lounge, and a dinner theater that performs an interactive murder mystery every night.  With no shortage of choices, I think we made the best possible one.  I always love any Middle Eastern food, but had never tried Egyptian before.  Needless to say, we feasted like the pharoahs of old, both of us having come a long way from feeling uncomfortable ordering anything at Taco Bell that wasn’t on the extra value menu.  It’s nice to go out to eat with people who are up for trying and sharing almost anything.

This was the hawawshi ($17.99), sort of a meat pie with seasoned ground beef, onions, and parsley in a crispy pastry crust, almost like a lightly fried stuffed pita (although it was possibly just baked).  I loved it.  It came with a metal pitcher of a very hot hot sauce that we learned to treat with caution and apply sparingly.  I would happily order this dish every time I return, I liked it that much.

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I’ve written before about how I can take or leave fries, but these fries are among the best I’ve ever had.  Crispy, crunchy, firm, flavorful, just salty enough — not limp or starchy.  Top-notch fries!DSC02576

I was intrigued by photos I had seen of this dish online, so I had to try it.  This was mombar ($12.99), chewy, savory sausages of seasoned rice, vegetables, and herbs, stuffed into cow intestines, fried in oil, and festooned with chewy, sweet sultanas.  I loved these, too!  They reminded me of dolmas (or dolmades), grape leaves stuffed with tangy seasoned rice, one of my favorite side dishes in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, only these were much richer and meatier-tasting.  They might sound weird, but I think most people would like them, if you get past the “cow intestine” dread.  They were an unlikely favorite of mine, in fact.  DSC02578

This mixed grill ($29.99) arrived at our table on a fancy golden platform billowing hot smoke.  It looked a little bit like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of my Top Five favorite movies of all time, but you don’t want to shield your eyes from this smoke show.  It came with a beef and lamb kofta skewer, a beef kabob skewer, a chicken kabob skewer, and a lamb chop, all char-grilled and expertly seasoned.  I don’t know which one I preferred more, the kofta or the beef kabob.  I like my lamb chops a little more on the rare side, but it still had so much flavor from the char-grilling process, something I just can’t do with meat at home, without a grill.  There was plenty for two of us to share everything, especially since we had ordered so many other dishes.DSC02581

The mixed grill came with a side order of rice that turned out to be a heaping mound of buttery rice pilaf, with vermicelli mixed in.
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This intriguing mountain of deliciousness is the koshari ($14.99), a combination of rice pilaf (maybe fried?), lentils, spaghetti and elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce and crispy, fresh-fried onions (you could tell they were fresh and not just shaken out of the French’s canister).  It would be a dream dish for vegetarians or anyone trying to carb-load, and it worked much better than you might be thinking.  It was a wonderful blend of textures, as well as flavors.  It also reminded me how much I love lentils, and how I should cook them at home far more often.  DSC02582
The menu said it also included chickpeas, but ours didn’t have any, and I was perfectly fine with that.  I love falafel and usually like hummus, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of plain ol’ chickpeas.  It also came with a side of garlic vinegar in a small metal pitcher, but we didn’t figure that out until we had already eaten most of it without it.

We were there a while and ordered a lot of stuff, so the friendly General Manager came by to check on us and very generously provided us with this dessert sampler (normally $13.99), completely free!  It was an unnecessary gesture, but certainly a welcome and appreciated one.
DSC02583Most of these desserts were reminiscent of baklava, but the top right and bottom left are kunefe (here called konafa), a Middle Eastern pastry made of finely-shredded dough (almost like more vermicelli) soaked in a sugar syrup over sweet cheese, then baked.  It is buttery, crispy, rich, and very, very sweet.  The ones in the middle may have been basbousa, which my research tells me is a semolina cake sweetened with simple syrup made with rosewater.  And the rolls had the thin, crispy dough I associate with baklava, although I don’t know what this particular dessert is called.  We devoured all of it with gusto, though.

This was a great night out, let me tell you.  Not only did I get to try an amazing new restaurant (new to me and relatively new to Orlando), but I got to do it with an old friend who I had some real adventures with back in the day.  Back then, being in a band with him and four other guys, I went from being a shy and sheltered introvert to a more confident performer.  We played gigs all over Florida and as far out as New Orleans, and even recorded in multiple music studios.  That was more than half my life ago, but I’ll never forget the excitement of being in a band with my friends, pretty much living my dream.  I haven’t played music in far too many years and I miss it terribly, but I owe those five guys a debt I can never repay.  I draw on those skills I learned every day, since teaching is just another kind of performing.  I looked up to this guy, and I’m glad to say I still do now, just for different reasons.  I was so glad to catch up and hear all about his wife, his kids, his continued education, and his heroic work on behalf of the homeless, as the founder and Executive Director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville.  It’s an organization that could use your support, for anyone interested in donating to a truly worthy cause.

And in the meantime, whether you’re a local or a tourist, visiting our City Beautiful for a conference, convention, or vacation, Makani is one of your best bets along busy International Drive.  Why not eschew the usual chains and try delicious Egyptian food, prepared with care and love?  One of their signs calls it “Good Mood Food,” and I don’t see how you could eat at Makani and not be in a better mood.

Washington D.C. Part 2: SUNdeVICH

Once I made it to my D.C. hotel, I embarked on an exhausting day of sightseeing — really the only day I had to play tourist.  After a nearly-sleepless night, a ridiculously early flight, and a big breakfast at Ben’s Chili Bowl at the airport, I walked from my hotel down to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, then went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and then all the way down the National Mall to take a tour of the awe-inspiring Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  Any one of those landmarks could easily take a day or more to fully appreciate, but I realized my time was limited in D.C., and I wanted to see and do everything I could.  It ended up being a great day, full of education and inspiration, but also a long and exhausting one.  I walked much more than I’m used to — in uncomfortable dress shoes, no less — through oppressive heat and humidity on par with ours in Florida.  All those countless hours on the elliptical machine in my nice, air-conditioned gym didn’t prepare me for that.

So when I finally made it back to my hotel room, I did the usual — make it dark, make it icy-cold, and make fists with my toes in the carpet.  After a lot of water and Gatorade, I was ready for some dinner — something simple, within walking distance, that I could eat alone, to decompress and chill out before all the heavy-duty socializing of the next few days.  I found the perfect place about a half-mile walk from my hotel: SUNdeVICH (http://sundevich.com/).

A casual sandwich shop built into an old garage, SUNdeVICH has international flair, with sandwiches taking their namesakes from major international cities.  The menu is large and eclectic, with a little something for everyone, no matter what mood you’re in, including if you’re dehydrated and exhausted.dsc02380.jpg

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As usual, I had a hard time deciding, with all the options before me.  But thinking ahead to how busy I was about to be the following day, I decided to order two sandwiches, try them both tonight, and have plenty left for tomorrow, when I’d have conferencey stuff going on and couldn’t sneak off to eat anywhere good.  Did I want the Rome (an Italian sandwich with my beloved cured meats)?  The Berlin (a bratwurst with sauerkraut and mustard)?  The Havana (a Cuban sandwich)?  The Memphis (barbecue chicken)?  The Seoul (bulgogi beef with kimchi and Asian slaw)?  All sound good and any would have satisfied, but this was my one chance to get a little weird at SUNdeVICH.

I chose the Istanbul ($13), with ground beef and lamb, sumac onions, tomato, tzatziki, and fresh herbs, and the Shiraz ($12), with beef tongue, pickled vegetables, and mustard.  All things a Saboscrivner loves!  I also ordered a side of the intriguing Russian salad ($5), with chicken, potato, egg, peas, gherkins, carrots, and mayo.

This was back in the comfort of my room, with dinner, lunch for the next day, and not nearly enough Gatorade, after all that walking.  The Russian salad came with a huge bag of baguette ends for spreading and/or dipping.  They were very generous with these, and while I would have made them into garlic toast or croutons had I been home, there was just no way I could eat all that bread, on top of the nicer, fresher baguettes my two sandwiches came on.  DSC02384

This was the Istanbul (not Constantinople, NEVER Constantinople!)  The beef and lamb was made into a chargrilled patty, similar to the kofte I make at home — the consistency of a dense burger or slice of meatloaf.  Everything was seasoned very well, the tzatziki did a good job cooling the primary flavors of salt, garlic, and onion, and did I mention how fresh the bread was?  Well, it was.DSC02385DSC02387

And this was the Shiraz.  I love beef tongue, whether it’s pickled like corned beef at a Jewish deli or slow-braised in a lengua taco.  This preparation wasn’t exactly like either, but the slices were still very tender.  The pickled vegetables were cauliflower, celery, and carrot, like a finely-chopped giardinera salad, and the mustard was whole-grain variety, with crunchy little round seeds.  It was an interesting combination I never would have come up with on my own, but I’m glad I chose it.   DSC02386DSC02388

And the Russian salad?  Sorry I don’t have a close-up, but imagine a mayo-based chicken/potato/egg salad hybrid with peas, and you’ll have it.  I appreciate a cool, creamy salad accompanying rich, hearty sandwiches, and it was a much more interesting choice than plain old potato salad.  I wish the included baguettes had been toasted or grilled, but they wouldn’t have been as crispy by the time I got back to my room anyway.

I really liked SUNdeVICH and how creative and diverse the menu was.  We’re lucky to have lots of great sandwich shops here in Orlando, but I was thinking this particular international concept would do really well here.  After my first day in Washington D.C., it hit the spot and possibly saved my life.  But I was there for a few more days, which means a few more meals and a few more reviews yet to come.  Stay tuned, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos!

Mediterranean Deli

My wife doesn’t share my fascination with certain foods. Sandwiches, cured meats, cheeses, anything in tomato sauce, flavored chips, dips, sauces, condiments, spicy stuff — I love all that, and she leaves them to me.  That said, she is way more into chicken wings, chocolate, and other sweets than I am, generally.  But one thing we can always agree upon is a good gyro.  We love gyros, and we’re always on the lookout for good ones, since it’s almost impossible to duplicate that salty, garlicky gyro meat at home, whether it’s beef, lamb, or a processed blend of both.  I buy ground lamb and make it into a gyro-flavored meatloaf of sorts, but it still isn’t the same as that salty, garlicky meat sliced off a spit.

(FYI, the father of processed gyro meat was a Jewish guy named John Garlic.  I love that so much.)

Well, after hearing about its wondrous gyros on the Orlando Foodie Forum for years, we finally sought out the Mediterranean Deli, west of I-4 at 981 West Fairbanks Avenue, OrlandoFL 32804, but this one was not easy to find.  I drove by it twice since it’s a small location in a tiny plaza that was half under construction, and there was no sign easily visible from the road.  I always panic a bit when I can’t find what I’m looking for, but we eventually figured it out.  I am so glad we didn’t get frustrated and give up on this mission, because it is my new favorite gyro spot in town.

For the purposes of this review, I went twice, a few weeks apart, and ate pretty much the same stuff, because all of my photos came out horribly the first time.  (I only had my terrible phone camera on me, and not my halfway-decent camera.)  To help get people enthusiastic about trying Mediterranean Deli instead of inadvertently turning them off to it, all of these photos are from my second visit, when I brought everything home to share with my wife.

This was my huge gyro, sliced off a spit and served on soft, warm, lightly grilled pita bread with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and red onion, and cool, creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce.  It is stuffed beyond belief, and a smart person might keep it wrapped in its paper and foil wrap, unpeeling just enough for a few bites at a time to avoid it falling to pieces.  But to get a proper photo just for you, dear readers, I opened it up.  No regrets.img_0067.jpg

My wife’s equally enormous gyro, hold the tomatoes and onions.  She got three meals out of it!img_0066.jpg

The gyro meals come with a side salad for something like $8, including a free canned drink.  My wife said she didn’t want any sides, so I picked two for myself: a vinaigrette-based pasta salad (left) and an absolutely delicious mayo-based seafood pasta salad, with imitation crabmeat and medium-sized, perfectly al dente shell pasta.  I always love any kinds of pasta or macaroni salad, but the seafood version will become my new go-to side.  They also offer fresh Greek and Mediterranean-style salads, hummus, and tabouleh as options, but I make green salads all the time at home, buy hummus often, and don’t like parsley enough to get into tabouleh.img_0065.jpg

This is a nice rectangular slice of spinach pie, AKA boreeka, with sheets of flaky dough layered with sauteed, tender, perfectly-seasoned spinach and feta cheese, then baked to a golden brown.  It is soft, warm, crispy, flaky perfection.  I could easily and happily eat the entire large pan my slice was cut out of.IMG_0068

I love stuffed grape leaves, often called dolmas or dolmades.  Sometimes they are stuffed with ground meat and rice and served warm, but I honestly prefer the vegetarian versions that are just stuffed with seasoned rice and served cold, marinated in oil and occasionally vinegar.  These are the latter, and I could eat dozens of them, too.  The side order comes with a generous helping of extra tzatziki sauce, which is very thick and perfect for dipping them.img_0069.jpg

Mediterranean Deli is a tiny little restaurant in a tiny little strip that looks like it has seen better days.  The restaurant isn’t fancy at all, but it is awesome, and locals know it.  I never even drove west of I-4 on Fairbanks before until I heard this place existed, but I’m so glad I went a little out of my way to discover it for myself.  I will argue they serve the absolute best gyro in Orlando, and everything else I ate was awesome as well.  It’s a real bargain too, for the amount and quality of food you get.  With any luck, you will meet the owner, warm and welcoming Walaid, who greets everyone as “My friend.”

By the way, Mediterranean Deli doesn’t have a website, but the phone number is listed online as 407-539-2650.  There are also photos of the menu on that inexplicably popular review site that rhymes with “help” and occasionally provides some.

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine (http://www.cappadociaturkishcuisine.com/) is mere minutes from the job I’ve been at for over a decade, but I never made it there until this year.  Better late than never, because it was outstanding both times I’ve visited so far.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Turkish food, ever since discovering Bosphorous in Winter Park, which I’ve reviewed on The Saboscrivner before. But even though the restaurant is not as fancy as Bosphorous, the food at Cappadocia is easily as good and possibly (probably) even better, and also a little cheaper.

The first time I went, it was for a festive lunch with several members of the Orlando Foodie Forum. I met a bunch of interesting, cool, funny, and smart fellow foodies with excellent taste, and I’m happy to say I’ve even become friends with some of them since that lunch. We ordered a lot of food and shared almost everything. I ordered one of the best things I ate all year, braised lamb shanks in a rich tomato sauce. These lamb shanks were fork-tender and just melted in my mouth. I cannot rave about them enough!

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I was also lucky enough to try the fluffy, puffy lavas bread, the moussaka, and soslu patlican, a dip made of sauteed eggplant, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, and red and green bell peppers.  We also passed around baklava and another dessert called kunefe, shredded phyllo dough pastry stuffed with warm, sweet cheese and topped with pistachios and sugary syrup.  Each dish I tried was better than the last. I had fallen in love with a new restaurant, literally moments from work.  And the best thing about that lunch was the friends we made along the way.

More recently, I brought home takeout so my wife could finally try Cappadocia, since she’s a fellow Bosphorous fan. I over-ordered so we’d have a few meals from everything, and we started with the “hollow bread” (like Bosphorous’ lavas bread, except this bread deflated a bit on the way home) and the “cold combo” mixed appetizer platter. That included babaganoush (smoky roasted eggplant dip), parsley-heavy tabule salad, pan-fried mixed eggplant dip, a strained yogurt curd dip called lebne, and a grape leaf, rolled and stuffed with seasoned rice. They were kind enough to substitute my favorite dip from last time, the soslu patlican, for the regular hummus. I like hummus fine, but I buy it at Publix often, and it’s usually the least-interesting item in these types of sampler platters.

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I ordered the gyro platter for my wife, since we both love gyros, and I learned that Cappadocia makes its own seasoned gyro meat, as opposed to the processed (BUT DELICIOUS) meat a lot of gyro joints use. The lamb was salty and garlicky, with a crispy crust from being cooked on a grill after being shaved off a spit. It was a little dry, and I wish it had been juicier, but it was still good.  It was served over rich, buttery rice pilaf that we both loved, and it came with a small, freshly-baked pita bread.

IMG_0022I ordered an old favorite I’ve loved before at Bosphorous, iskender kebab, sliced lamb cooked in a spicy tomato-yogurt sauce and served over pieces of crispy, buttery grilled bread that gets softer as it absorbs the sauce. It also came with rice pilaf on the side, fresh pita, and a small salad of lettuce, red onion, and delicious, crispy, tangy pickled red cabbage that I was a huge fan of, tossed in a light vinaigrette.

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As if that wasn’t enough, I also ordered us the moussaka I had enjoyed so much at the previous lunch: a baked casserole of ground lamb with layers of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, bechamel sauce, and melty kashar cheese. It was very different from Greek versions of moussaka I’ve had before, which aren’t nearly as tomatoey, but I preferred Cappadocia’s version.

IMG_0025Needless to say, we both got several meals out of this bounty, although the hollow bread loses something over a 25-minute drive and is certainly best enjoyed at the restaurant. Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine has been one of my favorite finds of 2018, an unassuming location in a part of town you’d normally just drive through without lingering. I had attempted to try it over the years, but had the bad luck of finding it closed every time, to the point where I wondered if it was a front. It was totally worth the wait, and I can’t rave about the food enough. It’s a hidden gem on Semoran Boulevard, in a sketchy stretch between East Colonial Drive and the 408, and totally worth the drive from wherever you are.  It’s all good, but those lamb shanks I had on my first lunch there are still my favorite dish I’ve tried so far.

Bosphorous

On Sunday evening, I met a friend at Bosphorous, the beautiful Turkish restaurant on Park Avenue in Winter Park.  (https://www.bosphorousrestaurant.com/)  It is one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando, and it never disappoints.  This time was no exception.

My friend had never been there before; I suggested it because she is vegetarian, and other vegetarian friends I’ve brought there thought they died and went to heaven, with all the delicious options to choose from.

We shared the mixed appetizer platter with puffy lavas bread, which is almost a requirement when you eat there.  The soft, pita-like bread will arrive at your table puffed up with hot air, and you need to pierce it with fork tines to deflate it to avoid being burned.  Then rip off pieces and go to town with the cool, refreshing dips in the platter.  I have said that everything tastes better in sandwich or dip form, and these dips are among the finest around.  The platter also comes with one of Bosphorous’ stuffed grape leaves, sliced in two, and a few kalamata olives and cornichons (tiny pickles, which I love, even though I’m normally not big on pickles).  You have to order the lavas bread separately, but you’ll regret it if you don’t!

One of my favorites is the savory tomato and sauteed eggplant dip called soslu patlican.  I could eat a whole jar of that stuff in no time.  I should really learn how to make it myself!  The platter also includes babaganoush (smoked eggplant dip), tabbuli (similar to couscous), ezme (a spicy salsa-like dip with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and other peppers, and walnuts), and haydari (a thick, creamy yogurt dip with walnuts).

My absolute favorite, which my wife loves too, is taramosalata, which is a creamy, salty, fish roe concoction.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t included this time, replaced with a thin, creamy dip called cacik, with yogurt, cucumber, mint, and dill.   (My brilliant brother, one of my most loyal readers, suggested cacik might be etymologically related to the similar Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki, and he’s probably right!)  I guess without the taramosalata, the whole platter is vegetarian, so that makes some sense.  It doesn’t even seem to be on the menu anymore!

If you don’t want to spring for the whole platter, you can always order any of these dips separately, but for first-time diners, I strongly recommend trying them all, so you can pick out the ones you like best.  My least-favorite is the hummus, because it’s just plain hummus, which I eat all the time.  I wonder if they let you mix and match.  It never occurred to me to ask!

While my wife and I usually share the mixed appetizer platter and an order of doner kebap (similar to gyro meat, and served on a bed of rich and buttery rice pilaf, perfect for wrapping up in the lavas bread), this time I tried something new to me: the lahmacun, which is like Turkish pizza — flatbreads that were at once both crispy and soft, covered with ground lamb in a piquant sauce.  It comes accompanied by shredded, pickled red cabbage, beets, and red onions (love it!), plus some mixed greens and sliced tomatoes.  You put the vegetables on the lahmacun half-moons, pour on a little of the incredible vinaigrette dressing, fold it, and eat it like a sandwich.  I loved it.

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My friend ordered the spinach and feta pide, a pastry “boat” that was warm and soft, stuffed with sauteed spinach and melty, cheesy goodness, topped with sliced tomatoes.  She was suitably impressed.

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Unfortunately, my wife was down for the count with a migraine to end all migraines, which is the only reason she didn’t join us for dinner.  But I ordered another mixed appetizer platter and a whole lavas bread to bring home to her, which she appreciated.  (Except they forgot the stuffed grape leaves on this one — First World Problems Alert!)  This is one of the ways you make a marriage work, you guys.

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