The geographical migration of falafel is remarkable. The fried balls of mashed chickpeas, believed to have originated in Egypt, have become an integral part of cuisine ranging from Moroccan to Saudi Arabian. The best viands find a way to spread, and clearly Middle Eastern-Mediterranean cuisine has taken root in Palo Alto – from casual spots like Mediterranean Wraps on California Avenue to nicer ones like Lavanda on University, they seem to be littered everywhere. More recently it has replaced the once-popular Oaxacan Kitchen and sprung up in the form of Anatolian Kitchen. However, while the restaurant does in general produce good food, it’s not clear that Palo Alto needed another Mediterranean spot.
Anatolian Kitchen provides an inviting atmosphere that is not quite as formal as the dim lighting might suggest. The restaurant is probably best suited for a low-key but nicer dinner with some friends or an informal dinner date.
The Mediterranean cuisine complements the inviting atmosphere with a respectable offering of vegetarian options that would allow most herbivores to be fairly happy. The baba ganoush in particular is excellent; the roasted flavor of the eggplant comes through just the right amount in a spread that is a wonderful balance of creaminess and taste. The cacik is also flavorful and has a nice crunch provided by the chopped cucumbers and a great kick provided by the garlic.
The quality of the vegetarian options dampens slightly at the “Falafel Plate” appetizer. The falafel themselves are cooked very well, with an appetizing outside that serves as the perfectly hardened shell to a moist interior of chickpeas. The spicing of the falafel, though, is a bit pale, and they are only saved by the accompanying sauces and hummus. Likewise, the stuffed eggplant flags a bit in overall quality. The eggplant is tender but the dish ends up coming off a bit mushy; a less than stellar mouth feel hampers what could otherwise be a respectable dish in terms of flavor.
While not a total miss, the dolma is perhaps the nadir of the vegetarian dishes in that it is completely forgettable. And though the “Mediterranean Salad” could also use stronger flavoring, it is at least a lighter option than the dolma for those looking for a brief escape from the heavier meat selection.
Not all of Anatolian Kitchen’s meat dishes are heavy. The “Chicken Shish Kebab,” for example, actually provides a flavorful yet lean skewer of chicken alongside a bed of underwhelming sautéed vegetables and rice. It is, however, within the red meat dishes that Anatolian Kitchen is able to shine. With the mousaka, the onion-and-tomato sauce provides a fantastic sweetness that, when paired with the earthy flavors of the zucchini and potato, brings out the savory notes in the ground lamb, beef and eggplant beautifully. The mousaka is certainly a highlight of the menu, as is “Alexander’s Favorite (Iskender).” This dish is particularly rich but shows that Anatolian Kitchen can really deliver delicious lamb. The bread cubes act to soak up the flavor of the surrounding sauces and, despite bad experiences with soggy croutons elsewhere, really enhance the texture of the dish.
Anatolian Kitchen’s niche between formal and casual Mediterranean is not exactly a sweet spot. The food is generally good, but the restaurant is too informal to exhibit real culinary expertise, yet too formal to become one of the usuals. As Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines continue their travels, Anatolian Kitchen is stuck somewhere in the “middle of the road.”