I first came into Mediterra on a wet, rainy afternoon, seeking solace from the floods of Isla Vista and a warm, comforting meal. My spirits were instantly lifted upon entering the café. Greeted with the sounds of Turkish music, the smell of fresh food and a warm smile from behind the counter, I was ready to pull up a seat and get comfortable.
“It’s light, it’s airy, it’s a friendly place,” Gabi Bansmann, co-owner of Mediterra, said.
This delightful atmosphere is due, in no small part, to the personal warmth and kindness that owners Gabi Bansmann and her partner Rudy Schmidt radiate from the moment you walk in.
As my friend and I took our seats, Bansmann quickly came over to bring us two petite glasses of a lovely Turkish chai tea.
“When you go somewhere in Turkey, they always serve you tea, so I try to do that here,” Bansmann said.
Bansmann and Schmidt moved here from Germany in the ’80s and took over Mediterra about nine months ago. It was previously a Mediterranean market which also sold food, but they decided to focus more on the restaurant aspect.
Thank goodness they did. From the soft, warm pitas and irresistible hummus to the flavorful gyro pita wraps and Greek salad, the food at this hole-in-the-wall spot is outstanding.
Schmidt is the sole chef of the restaurant and makes every dish himself with the experience he has gained from cooking throughout Europe.
“He’s cooked all over the world,” Bansmann said of Schmidt, whose culinary expertise includes techniques picked up from a number of countries including Italy, France and Spain.
With such a diverse background and highly-refined skills, Schmidt is surprisingly as unpretentious and full of heart as the food he cooks.
As he took a break from the kitchen to sit down with us and chat, Schmidt said he picked up a lot of his knowledge of Mediterranean cooking from Greek chefs he has worked alongside throughout his career. He has a strong appreciation for the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet with its utilization of fresh herbs, produce and healthy fats.
“The only oil we ever use here is olive oil,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt shops at the farmers market every day in order to pick up ideas, as well as high quality, organic ingredients for his health-conscious menu.
“It goes hand in hand with the local farmers market and that’s what I really love about it,” Schmidt said.
The attention to detail and dedication to freshness are noticeable in each of their delicious dishes.
I ordered the Falafel Pita Wrap and can honestly say it was the best gyro I’ve had outside of Greece. The falafel — a ball of fried chickpeas — was fresh, hearty and flavorful without being too overpowering, and was accented perfectly by the tomatoes, onions, greens and tahini sauce all wrapped up in a thick blanket of fluffy, warm pita bread.
Bansmann and Schmidt get the pita from Turkish wholesalers in Los Angeles. Dip a piece of it into their homemade hummus — a delicious blend of chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil — and you have a meal that is both simple and spectacular.
My friend ordered the Gyro plate, a well-rounded spread featuring Gyro meat (thinly-sliced lamb), rice pilaf, fresh green salad, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), pita and tzatziki sauce (an addictive blend of Greek yogurt, dill, lemon juice, garlic and cucumber that Schmidt prepares fresh daily).
They also make a nice selection of panini, lavish wraps, salads, specialty Turkish coffee and traditional baklava.
As a nod to their German heritage, they also offer an apple streusel cake for dessert, baked fresh daily and served with whipped cream. Even after the baklava, I couldn’t resist ordering this comforting confection of fresh apples and sweet streusel topping, bursting with the taste of cinnamon in every bite.
Schmidt’s multicultural culinary background is showcased in the daily specials which always include two entrées, such as the vegetarian lasagna, as well as a soup of the day.
“It’s my creative outlet,” Schmidt said with a smile before jumping back into the kitchen to resume his post.
They occasionally offer musical entertainment on Friday nights, something Bansmann hopes to make into more of a regular thing.
The production could eventually feature belly dancers or Turkish folk music.
When it comes to running a good restaurant, it is quality not quantity that matters. With fresh and flavorful cuisine, an inviting atmosphere and heartfelt service, this seems to be a fact that Bansmann and Schmidt, the only two employees at Café Mediterra, are well aware of.