Mare Nostrum orchestrates a beautiful Mediterranean meal

A great meal should build like a piece of music, and Mare Nostrum's cuisine hits all the right notes

A great meal should build like a piece of music, with each phase deepened and enriched by the next as small notes or themes or contrasts emerge over time. Restaurants will often focus on the obvious—the decor of the restaurant—while missing the fact that time and taste is more important to a fine meal than space.

It seemed at first as if Mare Nostrum (716 S. Broadway, [410] 327 6173, marenostrumbaltimore.com), the new Turkish restaurant with a Latin name in Fells Point, might make this mistake. The website lavishly describes the paintings and amethyst crystals that decorate the long, narrow space. When we arrived, we were told it was BYOB, which no one mentioned when we called for the reservation. The server brought the cold meze cart (like a dim sum cart) up to our table—and proceeded to disappear. We felt like we couldn't order or leave to get some beer. And the meze on the cart didn't look too appetizing, so I spent a few minutes noticing that the pleasant surroundings were far more ordinary and simple than the website let on. The space is defined by the cool white marble tabletops, the dark, unfinished wooden walls, and a vaguely nautical theme. Everything was simple and beautiful—except for the drop ceilings but, hey, what can you do?

But as soon as the customer who was monopolizing the single server left and she came over and took our order and we went next door to Alexander's and got a six-pack to go, everything fell into place—or rather time—and came across beautifully. Indeed, the experience was nearly perfect in its complexity.

The bread that came with our first appetizer was extraordinarily light and fluffy inside, while the crust wrapping around it was hard and crisp. It was still slightly warm and was exquisite to dip in the ezme ($7), a dip or paste made of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices. The server described it as like a super-thick gazpacho, and there was something of that fresh summery flavor of gazpacho, but it was also richer and deeper, as if some of the tomatoes had been sun-dried.

We had a few minutes to enjoy the ezme before the smoked trout ($9) with capers and onions came out. The smokiness of the fish set off the flavor of the ezme, which now came across with more subtlety and fire. The same thing happened to the smoked trout, in turn, when the server brought out the bronzini ceviche ($10). Mare Nostrum flies the bronzini in from the Aegean Sea daily (mare nostrum—Latin for "our sea"—is the phrase the Romans used for the Mediterranean) and its citrus served to both cut and enhance the flavors of the previous dishes—which we were still eating, by the way. These three notes made a beautiful chord.

I especially loved the bronzini. It may not be the best ceviche in town—I reserve that title for Puerto 511—but it is better than most, including Clavel's, which has garnered a lot of recent praise. But the small slivers of fish (they could have been bigger cuts) exploded with flavor, not only that of the citrus used to cure it, but that of the sea itself.

The meal reached its crescendo with the grilled octopus ($19), served in a very light olive oil with capers. I recently ate one of the very best meals of my life at a small taverna near the Aegean at the foot of Mount Olympus, where the owner took me in the back and showed me the fish and the octopus he was going to cook, and this octopus was as good as that. The flesh of the cephalopod was so fleshy it was almost obscene. There is no other way to say it. I couldn't quit eating it. But because everything else was still on the table, I never got tired of it, because a scoop of ezme on bread or of the smoky trout seemed to wash out the palate, leaving me refreshed for another bite.

Finally, however, I was stuffed. I could not eat another bite—even though the adana kebab ($21) was still coming. This dish, a long kebab of spicy hand-diced lamb, is a signature of Turkish cooking and it looked gorgeous, served with a light and fluffy pilaf and tomatoes and peppers. But how was I going to manage?

And then a funny thing happened. Once I took my first bite, it was so different than everything that had come before, I was not full at all. I kept cutting off more and more and shoveling the pilaf into my face behind huge mouthfuls of meat. I felt for a moment almost medieval in my gluttony. The spice was hot, but nothing like that of the ezme or anything else I'd eaten and, once I tasted it, there was no turning back.

When the tender delight of the adana was all gone, we ordered a Turkish coffee and a dessert. I love Turkish coffee but generally despise dessert. It just seems like a way to turn everything good one has eaten into a mess of saccharine sweetness. For me to find a dessert I can eat is a pretty hard task, but, whoa, I had never had anything like kunefe ($10).

Imagine shredded wheat cereal wrapped around hot cheese soaked in honey and maple syrup with pistachios on top. The texture alone was astounding, as the hairiness of the shredded wheat combined with the crunch of the nuts and the softness of the cheese. And again, the sweetness of the honey provided a counterpoint to the Turkish coffee (we ordered another Turkish coffee, which the server gave us on the house, for full disclosure).

Walking back across town from Fells Point through the cool breeze as the red reflection of the Domino sign rippled across the water, we couldn't stop talking about the meal we had eaten. Rather than serving as a simple, utilitarian pleasure—providing the necessary nutrients—Mare Nostrum had achieved that rare feat of transforming sustenance into substance and making music out of a meal.

Mare Nostrum is open Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

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