Linda

You need go no farther than Portland to take a journey through the flavors of the Mediterranean. When I think of the tastes of the Mediterranean, I think of tomatoes, olives and olive oil. TIQA offers a much broader view, including cuisine I have not been exposed to.

Sure, you’ve tasted foods from Italy and France, but how about Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel? The welcoming staff, including our experienced server, Kelsey, made us feel right at home and was fully prepared to explain the dishes on the menu.

Choosing from the starters, kefta and kebobs, salads and soup, as well as main courses, was a bit overwhelming. So when the manager came over to talk with us, he let us know that the chef was preparing two sample plates to give us an idea of the range of flavors they serve.

They had me at the bread. A plate of warm house-made pita and sourdough focaccia was accompanied by a zata’ar spice blend and olive oil. I’d never tried that spice before and I loved it. It is a blend made of sumac, oregano, sesame seeds, thyme and salt and is used throughout Middle Eastern cuisine.

I started smelling a most delectable aroma from the kitchen. As I saw a chef moving toward the dining room with the dishes, I was willing him toward our table. Yes indeed, they were ours! When he explained the sampling plates, I quickly noted that he’d included two dishes I had decided I wanted to try.

The fattoush salad (Israel, $8), was composed of cucumber, tomato, onion and crispy fried bread cubes dressed with a sumac vinaigrette. Delicious.

My favorite dish of the evening was the falafel (Egypt, $6). I order this dish often, but TIQA’s version was by far the tastiest. Packed with flavor from spices, these chickpea fritters were fried to crispy perfection. Served over hummus, topped with a tahini sauce and accompanied by a cucumber salad, this dish made me happy.

The spiced ground lamb and beef kefta were also good. Kefta is a version of meatballs from Turkey. Greek yogurt was the base of the haydari sauce served with these. Wow, they were tasty.

And the last dish of the sample plates was a haricots vert and hazelnut salad (France, $8). Crunchy green beans and snow peas were combined with toasted hazelnuts and was superfresh because of the addition of orange zest in the dressing.

With all that sampling, we ordered only one more light dish to split and did not attempt any of the main courses. That’s one of the nice things about TIQA. You can make a meal of a variety of flavors by ordering small plates. There’s a lot of choice here, and truly, the flavors are amazing.

I ordered a light dessert — house-made sorbetto and gelato. My blood orange sorbet with candied ginger was light and citrusy, and not too sweet.

A visit to the Mediterranean was never easier. Put TIQA on your must-visit-soon list for a special dining experience.

George

TIQA is a unique and fun dining experience. The seating options are great, with a living room setting with couches, outside tables, gorgeous inside seating and a bar where you can watch the masterful chefs work; and they also have a special room where they host more than 200 events a year. The owners, Deen Haleem, a Palestinian, and Carol Mitchell (George’s niece), have attracted a top-notch staff including executive chef Bo Byrne and Dylan, the chef who prepared our meal on that Sunday night. We found the manager, Patrick Morang, a Gardiner native and experienced restaurant manager, to be particularly friendly and helpful (as you would expect from anyone from Gardiner).

I had a lot of fun imagining my trip around the Mediterranean as we moved — foodwise — from country to country. I was in Turkey one moment and Italy the next. We began our feast by bringing Egypt and Israel together with the fattoush salad ($8) and falafel ($6). Don’t we wish it were that easy. And I agreed with Linda: The falafel was our favorite dish of the night, although honestly, I liked everything we tried. I especially enjoyed the kefta (Turkey, $18) with the perfectly cooked and tender beef. The seasoning on all of our dishes made each one unique.

Desserts here are creative, too. I had the coconut custard ($9) served with almond shortbread and mango jam with toasted almonds. The shortbread was great, and the custard smooth, refreshing and light. There’s mint in the mango that freshens it up.

Prices here are reasonable, especially for Portland. And we enjoyed Maine microbrews, which went well with the food. I’m already plotting a return trip, to try the citrus herb linguini (Italy) and a lot more of that falafel.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed by town in the “Best of Maine” section.

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