March 13 2013 12:00 AM

European fusion restaurant offers inventive, eclectic menu


Super soup

Let us stipulate now that the world would be a better, saner place if more restaurants could make soup like Mediteran.

Great soups are the underpinnings of great civilizations, and Mediteran knows the basics. Start with an excellent stock, made from scratch. Use fresh sturdy root vegetables, but don’t overcook them. Don’t get carried away with spices. Serve piping hot.

On three separate visits I tried three kinds of soup. All excellent. More on them in a moment.

Mediteran enjoys a steady, loyal lunch crowd, yet even when crowded at lunchtime, there is a decided lack of din. There is a quiet dignity about the place. It’s calming. Forest green walls hover over oak wainscoting. Magazines about Bosnia and Croatia are tucked into a back corner along with a family photo album.

But the dignity is not without mirth. Filling nearly every wall are quirky pen and pencil drawings by co-owner Mirko Jurkovic, from caricatures to pensive, praying hands.  Jurkovic’s imprint is everywhere. He greets and seats people, describes the dishes, keeps everything humming, attending to every guest. What happens when he gets sick? Do they close?

Mediteran leans heavily on Eastern European cuisine with Greek influences. Imagine the recipes Odysseus might have brought home if he had ventured away from the Mediterranean Sea into present-day Slovakia and Bosnia.

Now, about those soups. The chicken soup immediately made me think of my grandparents, Slovakian immigrants, who hosted Sunday dinners. My own chicken soup is darn good. Mediteran’s chicken soup is darn good to the fourth power.

I want the recipe.

Second visit: The cream of chicken soup was brimming with the same great flavor. Third visit: A delicate, creamy cauliflower soup had me channeling Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.” For one lunch, I devoured a fine gyro, with thin slabs of grilled lamb, fresh onion and a splendid yogurt and dill-based tzatziki sauce.

Another time, I went for the beet salad. A mound of pickled beets became the hub of a wheel, circumscribed by cucumber slices and topped with feta cheese and stuffed olives. Delicious, delectable and de-lovely.

At dinner one night, we shared a Mediteran Plate — the chef’s choice of several dishes. The long, broad platter is a carnivore cruise ship, with pork tenderloin, chicken shish kabob, lightly spiced ground beef rolls known as cevapi, and a breaded chicken cutlet. Plenty to sate four people. That’s the good news.

The less happy news is that the platter, replete with spaetzle (German dumplings), rice and vegetables, arrived smothered in gravy. I love gravy, but it flattened the distinctive tastes of each separate dish.

And as we discovered previously when we ordered lamb stew, the flavors are muted. I’m a bold flavor kind of guy. Boldness may not be in the Bosnian cuisine’s DNA, but I urge Mediteran to punch up the flavor of the meats and sauces, so that in a Mediteran Plate, you truly experience a full palette of flavors. Garlic, sherry, wild mushrooms, rosemary — just a starter list of additions that might elevate the taste.

It’s a shame, really, that Mediteran does not have a license to sell alcohol. A fine pilsner would go nicely with some of the ethnically inspired entrees, as would an after dinner sip of plum brandy, known as Slivovitz.

That said, I feel safe in saying there is no place like Mediteran in mid-Michigan. That alone makes this place a gem

Now, eat your soup.

International appeal

Our fair city boasts an incredibly international citizenry. Did you know that there is a Vietnamese Catholic Church? How about a Middle Eastern grocery store? A beautiful example of our cosmopolitan makeup is evidenced at Restaurant Mediteran in downtown Lansing, where the Jurkovic family serves dishes heavily influenced by their time in places other than mid-Michigan.

Owner Igor Jurkovic spent three years in culinary school in Croatia before he, his brother and his parents, moved to Lansing and opened Mediteran. A small country with a large coastline, Croatia has a cuisine that’s been influenced by the Turks, Romans and Germans, and makes the most of easily accessible seafood.

I have been eating at Mediteran since it opened, when I was still a starry-eyed intern in the state legislature. I can count the times I have ordered from the menu on one hand. Check the specials board before you walk in, and be prepared for Mirko Jurkovic, Igor’s father, to ask you two questions: “Something to drink?” and “Soup or salad?” (You should hear my impression.)

On a recent visit, I met a friend for lunch and we both ordered the lamb goulash with soup and salad. The lamb was roasted and cut into chunks, sitting atop spaetzle and drizzled with tomato sauce. My plate was laden with multiple helpings of the goulash, which made for a wonderfully decadent lunch and a snack later in the day. The house salad is a vibrant little thing, dressed in a light vinaigrette and served with a bunch of beautiful red beets. I call them nature's candy.

I've frequently made the bold statement that Mediteran has the best spaghetti Bolognese in town. The pasta noodles are never overcooked — the fatal flaw of so many spaghettis. The spaghetti Balkan is another of my favorites, my beloved al dente noodles topped with marinara sauce and a deep-fried pork chop. Regardless of her constant intent to broaden her horizons, my mother cannot seem to order anything but cevapi, tiny sausages made with beef and onion, with a side of spaetzle.

It is a healthy eater's dream — that is, until you're done with your meal and Jurkovic presents you the gorgeous desserts, which are painstakingly made by his wife, Lilly. I've had coconut cream pies, chocolate tortes, rice puddings, bite-sized cheesecakes and truffles. I always order a cup of coffee, which comes piping hot.

Jurkovic’s drawings on the walls are curious things, and I've heard that the walls of the men's restroom are decorated with images that would shock my delicate sensibilities. If you stop in for a meal around holiday time, primarily Christmas or Easter, the restaurant will be beautifully, ornately, colorfully decorated to the point that you will be sure that you've stepped into Santa's workshop or the Easter's Bunny's … lair?

The Jurkovices pour their energy into maintaining the quality of their food, making trips to Detroit every weekend to find fresh produce and to get inspiration from other restaurants.

Mediteran does not offer alcoholic beverages, but if the mood strikes, I'm sure anyone who has had a rough day can find a watering hole just up the street.

Restaurant Mediteran
333 S. Washington Square, Lansing.
Lunch: 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Monday–Friday;
Dinner: 4:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Monday–Saturday; Closed Sunday.
(517) 372-1072
TO, OM, P, $$$.