Can We Please Get A Clear Definition For Mediterranean Cuisine? Because I Just Can't Take It Anymore!!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A new place opened up in town (Aliso Viejo) recently and of course, I jumped at the chance to try it out. It's called Panini Cafe and it boasts Mediterranean fare and...well...paninis! I'm not really sure why they boast them as they kind of screw up both.

Allow me to tell you how...

Panini, in theory, is a beautiful thing. It's an improvement on the already close-to-perfect-comfort-food called grilled cheese. It's two pieces of beautiful artisanal bread (usually in the form of chiabatta), some sort of imported cheese (provolone, goat, buffalo mozzarella) and various fillings including but not limited to some sort of protein (chicken, turkey, fish) and some sort of veggie (artichokes, roasted red peppers, arugula). And most of the time you'll even get a nice sauce like pesto on there, or a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Then it's grilled in the ingenious panini press which both melts the cheese while pressing the otherwise stuffed sandwich down into a manageable bite. Brilliant.

Any idiot could manage a panini. You don't even need a fancy press to do it! I've done panini with a George Forman grill (loooooong story on how that purchase came to pass), two heavy skillet pans and even foil-covered bricks. Simple and fresh ingredients stuffed in between two slices of forgiving chiabatta...really, it's quite hard to screw this up. But somehow, Panini Cafe manages to do so.

Rule #1 for Panini: Do NOT overstuff your panini!!!
I ordered their "highly recommended" chicken panini with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, fontina cheese and pesto on foccacia. It sounds spectacular and full proof. Nope! Ruined in one felled swoop with a gigantic and clumsy piece of chicken. I mean, this sucker must have been on steroids because the breast was probably 2 inches thick. Now, at first thought one is tempted to think "Ooooo! Getting bang for buck!" but not with the panini. The obscenely obese piece of chicken was distractingly large and completely made the panini fall apart once you took a bite. That's the whole point of the panini! - to have a nice, packed but condensed sandwich that's easy to eat. What I had was not a panini - it was a chicken sandwich on foccacia with the yada yada.

Then I tried their "highly recommended" Salmon Panini. This was a mistake. An enormously thick piece of salmon (think an entire fillet) between two thin and frightened pieces of foccacia, a thin sliver of red onion and slather of generic dill tartar sauce. This was basically salmon with two pieces of soggy crackers. Had the salmon been thinner, the bread a different, more appropriate choice, and the sauce held back on, it could have been ok. But it wasn't. It was a mess - literally and figuratively. And what the hell is so Mediterranean about it?

If panini isn't your thing, don't despair - they have an extensive selection of Comes Close Enough Mediterranean Food. By that I mean their "Feta Cheese and Olives" is a handful of crumbled Athenos you can buy from your local Ralph's or Vons and Kalamatas from their olive bar. Had they actually paid attention to Mediterranean food, they would know and would serve you imported feta cheese cut in blocks, maybe even with a very economical drizzle of vinegar, and imported olives that really taste like olives. And yes, you can taste the difference with imported.

How about some Middle Eastern delights? Hummus, Babaganooj, Dolmadas anyone?? Sign me up!!! No, on second thought, get me out of this line! The hummus tasted like the butt cream I put on my babies' behinds when they get a rash. The babaganooj like the slightly more formaly dressed cousin of our esteemed rash cream hummus. And the dolmadas were a disaster. I'm sorry, but domadas do not have raisins in them. And if they do, they don't have that much. I was confused if I was having an appetizer or dessert! The appetizer platter (featuring the above failures) was abysmal.

Soup? Ok, the lentil soup was actually edible because it borderlined on legit. It had mint in it which I gave points for authenticity. The lentils I found to be slightly on the al dente side - wish they could have cooked them just a bit more. But overall the soup was decent enough and I'd have again. My favorite lentil soup? Not by a longshot. But I'd get it again.

Perhaps getting a salad would be better...

Ya, not really. Although the portions are insanely large and two people could easily split any entree, salad or panini respectively, the salads I found to be tired, old and at times downright odd. Their caesar is ok, but it's nothing extraordinary. Their Mediterranean same thing - just add olives and feta and apparently voila! you have a Mediterranean salad. Where's the tabouleh?? Where's the simple tomato-cucumber-onion salad with basil, parsley and mint in light lemon vinaigrette, sprinkled with salty feta? I didn't bother to have the caprese because I wasn't optimistic they'd have ripe tomatoes in January, and that's kind of the whole point of a caprese salad!

And since when did spring blend qualify as Mediterranean greens???? Sorry - I must have missed the barge on this one. Where's the seafood salad? Where's the grilled lemon and oregano marinated octopus? Where's the citrus marinated shrimp? Last time I check Greece was (a) part of the Mediterranean; (b) a collection of islands which naturally would induce the steadily consumption of seafood in their diet; and (c) has a long history of excellent, fresh and simple food that us stupid Americans really need not "improve" upon. When did AVOCADO become a Mediterranean ingredient???!!!

How about another more "exotic" salad: Date Salad. Well, that should be your first clue. At least it's aptly named. Yet another bed of spring greens this time with strawberries, blackberries, dried cranberries, dates (by the way, my salad the cooks never bothered to cut up any of these so I had wholestrawberries, blackberries and dates going on), gorgonzola cheese, walnuts (untoasted), and a protein of choice (shrimp, chicken or fish) with a pomegranate dressing. I made the mistake of ordering it with the generic Inexplicably Orange Tinted Chicken which they use in every single dish they offer that advertises chicken. The portion was HUGE. But it was clumsy - everything was so big and not cut bite-sized it just made me uncomfortable to eat. It didn't taste horrible, but it wasn't well balanced either.

Kabobs. I'm reluctant to try kabobs in restaurants now. And here's why: up by my parents' house in La Crescenta they have a fabulous local deli that marinates fresh chicken, pork and beef in an authentic spice marinade for very cheap prices. For $10 I can get 3 poundes of this stuff, a slew of local grown organic vegetables and make my own damn kabob bbq at home for a fraction of the cost. Add some house-made fresh hummus and imported olives and fresh pita and I have an instant party. Given that, I refuse (repeat: refuse) to pay $20 for one stick of beef and one stick of veggies improperly spiced and roasted. Therefore, I have not and will not try their totally overpriced kabobs. And with a scoop of basmati rice and side salad I'd no sooner just run out and get a ribeye and grill it myself.

What I won't make on my own, however, is falafal. I've not even dared to make this delectable street food because I know half the taste is getting it off the street. The Middle Eastern "hot dog," it's crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, deep fried and vegetarian and just plain good grub. Living in New Haven there was a Middle Eastern joint we'd frequent called (what else?!) Mediterranea. But here's the deal - the place was AUTHENTIC. The owner/chef was half Syrian half Italian and made a hell of a pizza and a beautiful falafal. And the hummus/babaganooj/other traditional fare? Amazing. Not a day goes by that I don't crave and long for Omar's beautiful food.

Panini Cafe's falafal are the antithesis of falafal - they're not so much crispy balls of chickpea goodness as much as lifeless disks of soggy disaster. It's not often I get truly disgusted by something I eat, but these I actually spit out. They were horrendous. They should be called falafal cakes, or falafal gnocchi or something other than falafal to qualify its inferiority and just give the consumer a heads up. When I have falafal I expect a crisp ball, well seasoned, hot, chickpea with warm spices inside treat o' goodness. Panini offered me a soggy patty that literally made my pallete and brain go "huh??" But I got yet another hefty serving of "Mediterranean Salad" along with it, so I suppose I should be happy about how much I spent on it.

Apparently they serve breakfast as well, and considering I could be a glutton for punishment I hope to try it soon. Their lunch/dinner menu is not authentic, clumsy, and you can tell that the staff (1) doesn't give a shit about what they're preparing; (b) the owner doesn't give a shit if you think it's authentic or even tastes good because (a) you should be happy you have someplace to eat in Aliso Viejo that isn't Opah or a fast food chain and (b) they have one of these joints in Beverly Hills and Newport Coast - so it must be good if rich people pay for it.

Ya, I get it. And frankly, part of me has to agree with it. On a night where you don't want to venture out to Laguna or...anywhere to just get something to eat I know I can always stop by and pick up something from Panini Cafe. Will I be happy with it? No. But at least I have the comfort of knowing I got a lot of mediocre food for the reasonable prices. Will I go back? Probably, because they're right - I'm not a huge fan of fast food and I never liked Opah.

Now, for some facts:

Price Range: cheaper to medium - paninis and salads on average $10; entrees $12 and up
Dine In/Take Out: yes to both; no delivery; no curbside
Bar: full bar with wine and cocktails if dining in
Good for Kids: yes during off hours - lighting is extremely dim inside so if you have kids then go earlier so they can actually see what they're doing; also patio seating outside
Service: decent, depending on who you have

Overall Rating: 6 bananas out of 10

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