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Club Med

Restaurant celebrates old world atmosphere

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Only a few restaurants in town offer a secluded, down-the-piazza type entrance. Always a bonus in Europe, seclusion in Charlotte is something a restaurateur must overcome. "Where is your restaurant again? I didn't see the sign from the road."

Owner Rick Gur wanted to open a restaurant in Charlotte with that old world feel when he returned here after a six year stint with a bank in Manhattan. Before New York, he had received a Masters in Public Administration from UNC-Charlotte and took a liking to Charlotte's green spaces. Last year he opened the 60-seat Rick's Mediterranean Cuisine in the secluded Strawberry Hill Shopping Center. Gur, a native of Ankara, Turkey, had looked forward to owning a restaurant that featured Mediterranean cuisine. "When we first opened, people didn't understand Mediterranean Cuisine. But business has picked up now," he says.

During the decadent 90s, the Mediterranean diet was frequently cited for its health benefits. In fact when Harvard University School of Public Health released its findings on the significantly lower incidence of chronic disease, Mediterranean cuisine became red hot. Olive oil replaced butter on some tables and potential heart valve replacement gourmands voraciously experimented with Paula Wolfert's cookbooks.

Mediterranean cuisine consists of fish and an abundance of grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, cheese, and yogurt. And there is wine, of course. In northern Africa cous cous, vegetables, and legumes form the center of the diet. In southern Europe rice, polenta, pasta, potatoes, vegetables and legumes are popular ingredients. In the eastern Mediterranean, bulgur, rice, vegetables and legumes such as chickpeas are featured. One of the common characteristics, however, is the absence of animal fat in the form of butter, cream or lard.

Gur met his Executive Chef Sid Taieb, who trained in his native Casablanca, Morocco, in Charlotte. Together they put together a menu that would reflect the cuisines of some of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin: Italy, France, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Turkey. Turkey, by the way, has a thoroughly neglected cuisine, yet it is probably the original Med-rim cuisine since the Ottoman Empire at one time extended throughout the basin.

Rick's is a family affair with Gur's parents and co-owner brother Sonny helping out in the kitchen. His mother, Hulya Gur, is responsible for the Turkish baklava and many of the Turkish specialty items.

Within the candlelit dining room, the walls are warmed by faux finished rustic hues. Sprigs of fresh flowers are set on each table. Beginning at the beginning, the vegetarian mezze platter offers enough for two. Included were deep fried savory Greek pastries, which were a hit at our table. But the undisputed star of the mezze was the Turkish Tarator, a dip made from ground walnuts, tomato paste, garlic, feta cheese and crushed red pepper. The Jerusalem hummus, on the other hand, was too dense, too leguminous, too herby for my tastes. The fried calamari, another appetizer, was perfectly fried and nearly greaseless -- a real treat.

Gur's opuses are his entrees. The moussaka with layers of sliced tomatoes and eggplant was outstanding. Who would argue with a Turk about his kabobs? Luscious cubes of chicken arrive at the table still sizzling from the grill, tender to the fork, and skewered with slivers of green peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The tuna on the St. Tropez entree, however, was overcooked, taking away from the flavor of the fish and the otherwise delightful orange, cinnamon and white wine sauce.

Most of the desserts offered are bought outside but the tiramisu, creme brulee, and Turkish baklava are made in house and are worthy of a go. Gur has a special phyllo for the baklava sent from a Turkish bakery in New York.

The wine list is filled with international, primarily Italian, and domestic wines. But the wines have a significant mark up, which is unfortunate given the reasonable cost of wines throughout the Mediterranean basin. As for the other prices, dinner entrees range from $11.95 for penne puttanesca to $23.50 for sea bass or filet mignon.

Gur recently began a series of one night events showcasing each of the Med-rim cuisines he features on his menu. For example a recent "Turkish Night" offered special Turkish dishes, Turkish music, and a belly dancing show. These one night events will be held every other week throughout the summer.

Rick's, with an atmosphere that is charming and romantic in an exotic way, offers an array of Med-rim food that is satiating, but not startling, and much of which is quite good. If you think this surprising, remember Turks excel in the unexpected. *

Rick's Mediterranean Cuisine, 4219-3 Providence Road in Strawberry Hill Shopping Center. 704-366-6887. Hours: Monday through Friday noon until 2pm, 5pm until 10pm; Saturday and Sunday 5pm until 10pm. Live music Friday and Saturday night. AmEx, MC, Visa.

Tasty Tidbits

* The winning dishes at the seventh Taste of the Nation held April 24 were the "Open Face Smoked Salmon Empanadas" from Latorre's Latin American Cuisine, "Tuna Carpaccio" from LaVecchia's Seafood Grille, "Lemon poached shrimp in leek tahini fondue" from Sonoma Bistro, and "Glazed Parsnip Soup" from Zebra. Best display awards were presented to Union Grille in the downtown Hilton and Harris Teeter. Congratulations to the winners.

* The Food Network is shooting Food Fight, a pilot for a possible series, in Charlotte and is looking for local cooks who have "won local cooking competitions, had recipes featured in regional cookbooks, or have had some culinary training." The nationally televised show will feature two, two-person cooking teams competing to produce the best local dish with a limited amount of time and money. The results are to be judged by local celebrities. If interested, call Mike Davis at 704-333-7399.

* Bistro 100, 100 North Tryon Street, is celebrating its second Morel Mushroom Festival beginning with a Cakebread Cellars wine dinner on Thursday, May 27, at 7pm. Dinner features morel pate; morel stuffed squash blossoms; a warm asparagus and poached egg salad; pan seared grouper with morel risotto, arugula and apricot salad; morel braised short ribs; rack of spring lamb with morels; and a mocha morel torte. Cost is $98 per person. Their dinner menu will offer morel specialties through Wednesday, May 29. 704-344-0515.

* As part of its fifth anniversary Swing 100, 1000 Central Avenue, will be open on Sundays from 5pm until 9pm with A Taste of Broadway, an ongoing theater revue. Admission is $10 and entrees range from $11 to $17. For reservations or more information: 704-334-4443.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. *

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