Mediterranean restaurant 101: From whole fish to chopped salad, here's what to order as a beginner

Curious what to order at a Mediterranean restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Holly Kapherr; designed by Areta Gjicali)
Curious what to order at a Mediterranean restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photos: Holly Kapherr; designed by Areta Gjicali)

The chefs that know Mediterranean cuisine best call it "the cuisine of the sunshine," and there's no better descriptor. Ripe tomatoes and refreshing cucumbers, grilled meats, fresh herbs — you can't help but feel invigorated by the ingredients and flavors that make up the menus of restaurants inspired by of this area of the world.

When considering Mediterranean cuisine, you might automatically default to Greek foods like gyros and baklava. But the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea touch 22 European, North African and Middle Eastern countries, so reducing the cuisine down to just Greek food isn't accurate. From Spain, Portugal and Morocco to the west and Turkey, Syria and Lebanon to the east, Mediterranean cuisine is far more than just hummus and gyros.

Chef Michael Michaelidis, partner and head of culinary operations at Riviera Dining Group and holder of 26 Michelin stars, was born in Cannes, a city on the Mediterranean in the south of France (and home of the famous film festival). His work has taken him to kitchens all over the world, from Hong Kong to Tokyo to New York City, but now he's settled in Florida, overseeing operations at Mila in Miami Beach and Ava MediterrAegean in Winter Park — just outside Orlando.

Sea bream (white fish) carpaccio topped with calamansi (a citrus fruit) and olive oil at Ava MediterrAegean. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)
Sea bream (white fish) carpaccio topped with calamansi (a citrus fruit) and olive oil at Ava MediterrAegean. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)

Born to a Greek father and Dutch mother and growing up at his grandmother's table in France gave Michaelidis a discerning palate early on. "We had beautiful products all the time: asparagus, strawberries, potatoes," he tells Yahoo Life. Those ingredients inspired him to begin helping his grandparents in the kitchen. At 14, he knocked on the door of Cannes' most iconic hotel for an internship, and that's when his training started.

Michaelidis took me on a tour of his version of Mediterranean cuisine, punctuated by bright flavors like sumac and lemon, but founded in freshness: the best seasonal ingredients, simply prepared, rooted in fruits, vegetables and tender herbs.

Experts agree, Mediterranean foods are healthiest

Of all the restaurants you could visit, eating at a Mediterranean restaurant — or one that represents a cuisine from Mediterranean countries — is probably the healthiest option out there.

The Harvard School of Public Health's review of the Mediterranean diet confirms the ingredients and preparations used in this style of cooking — mainly fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, olive oil, small amounts of dairy and red wine — support the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, increase lifespan and promote healthy aging.

Additionally, eating this way can help promote weight loss, due to the plethora of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods with the addition of healthy fats like olive oil and integration of whole grains like bulgur, used in the parsley salad tabbouleh, among others.

Simple ingredients, simple preparations are key to Mediterranean cooking

Though the Mediterranean Sea spans almost two dozen countries, there are common threads that run through each country's cuisine. "Olive oil, lemon juice and herbs," says Michaelidis. "Greece has oregano. France has herbes de Provence. Parsley for Armenian, Lebanese and Israeli cuisine. Every country grows grapes, too, so we use those for some kind of stuffed grape leaf dish almost everywhere."

Because of the similar moderate climates of Mediterranean countries, vegetables and fruits are plentiful around the area. Nuts, too, are a staple of the cuisine, including walnuts and pistachios, mostly found in desserts like kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry) from Turkey and baklava from Greece. Cheese like Greek feta, Lebanese halloumi, chevre from France, and Italian ricotta salata and burrata are fresh, unripened cheese with grassy flavors that maintain the flavor of the sheep and goat milks from which they're made.

Feta cheese atop a salad at Ava MediterrAegean. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)
Feta cheese atop a salad at Ava MediterrAegean. (Photo: Holly Kapherr)

The techniques used in Mediterranean cooking are simple ones, but the intention is to highlight the natural flavors of each ingredient. "Grilling, roasting and braising are the main techniques we use," says Michaelidis. "Really healthy, but comforting. It's something you can eat all the time."

What to drink with Mediterranean cuisine

During dinner, opt for light-bodied wines like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio to complement the freshness of the produce and delicate flavors of grilled meats like chicken or fish. For heavier proteins or braised dishes, pick pinot noir, gamay or cabernet franc instead of beefier wines like merlot or cabernet sauvignon. Rosé is also a winner for Greek salads or sandwiches.

After dinner, enjoy a small digestif like Greek ouzo or French pastis or anisette — both oozing with anise and licorice flavors that neutralize aromatics like garlic and onion. Turkish coffee or mint tea from the Middle East and North African countries are both elegant ways to end a meal, too.

For non-drinkers, consider a half-juice, half-sparkling water spritzer using citrus, pomegranate or cucumber with herbs like rosemary or mint.

3 best items to order as a beginner

Still not sure what to order off the menu? Michaelidis recommends going with the following items that should be found on any menu, for the best first time-experience.

Chopped salads: Let this blow your mind — salads don't need lettuce. In fact, most Mediterranean salads are "composed" salads, combining chopped vegetables with a light dressing (olive oil and lemon juice usually do the trick) with fresh herbs, salt and pepper. That's it! Sometimes cheese like feta will make an appearance — Michaelidis serves the Greek salad at Ava MediterrAegean with slabs of beautiful Macedonian feta — and tiny purple kalamata olives are like finding jewels in the garden. Just watch for pits.

Grilled or roasted whole fish: Americans tend to be put off by whole animals on our plates, but whole fish direct from the water is a classic Mediterranean preparation. At Ava, Michaelidis roasts a whole branzino (a mild white fish) wrapped in grape leaves in a salt crust and the server filets it table-side. Fish stuffed with lemon slices and oregano or other tender herbs is another popular presentation.

Meatballs: Almost every Mediterranean cuisine has some version of ground meat mixed with savory spices, nuts, dried fruits and herbs and then grilled — sometimes on a stick — served with a sauce. For Middle Eastern and North African countries, it's kofte made from ground lamb or beef. Spain has albondigas and Italy … well, you know. Yogurt sauces are popular with these morsels, sometimes mixed with herbs and grated or diced cucumbers and lemon juice to offset the richness of the meat mixture.

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