First Impressions of John Gorham's Mediterranean Exploration Company

According to the chef of Toro Bravo and the Tasty empire, MEC is essentially “Tasty n Sons, focused on one part of the world.” We're happy to be along for the ride.

By Kelly Clarke September 2, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Kelly Clarke

After touring Spain at Toro Bravo and cooking breakfasty love notes to the American South, Burma, and Brazil at Tasty n Sons, chef John Gorham takes on the Mediterranean at his big, boisterous new Pearl District dining room. Inspired in part by Tasty’s signature Israeli dish shakshuka, the restaurant’s vibe is pure comfort-chic, right down to the tiered menu of shared plates, but MEC’s already charting a fresh direction for Gorham’s empire. 

The menu skips from Israel to Morocco, Turkey to Greece, but the through line is deft spicing: layers of cinnamon and cardamom (a spice the Toro kitchen doesn’t even stock); Aleppo peppers everywhere; and, unexpectedly, caraway seeds (a staple in Libya), which add indefinable kick to a fiery roasted pumpkin and carrot dip destined to replace hummus entirely. A classic Syrian riff on a potpie hides spicy lamb/beef kebabs and garlicky fire-roasted tomatoes under a pita shell that looks like a sesame seed–gilded Dome of the Rock. Even the cocktail bitters are goosed with harissa.

In a nod to East Mediterranean customs, Portland’s chosen meat (pork, of course) is absent from the menu. Instead, the kitchen represents seafood in a major way, from an octopus salad sweet with roasted peppers (pictured above) to the standout chreime, a silky cod “stew” native to Jewish families in Tripoli that sings with that three-part harmony of caraway and cardamom, serrano peppers, and tomato—it tastes like the soulful North African answer to enchilada sauce.

As Gorham himself puts it, MEC is essentially “Tasty n Sons, focused on one part of the world.” With his knack for grafting distant flavors onto casually refined Northwest dining, the chef continues to be a tour guide worth following to new ports of call.

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