Edward Zaki says the guiding concept for Avlí Mess Hall, the downtown Sarasota restaurant he opened last December with his wife, Mila Aguiar, and chef Alexandre Gosselin, is that it shouldn’t be “too serious.” You’ll never see a white tablecloth, Zaki promises. “We wanted to give it a vibe where you can have a drink and share a couple plates and call it a night, or do a three- or four-course meal,” he says.
That adaptable, mix-and-match approach is all over the menu, which is rooted in Greek cuisine but also takes in influences from Turkey, Syria, Portugal and Italy. The restaurant replaced El Greco Mediterranean Cafe, which closed last year. Zaki says the idea was to keep the space as a destination for Greek food, but not to limit the restaurant to one identity. So while you will find familiar items like baba ghanoush, Avlí’s Syrian-style baba ghanoush comes dressed with dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice condiment, as well as crunchy pomegranates, garlic confit and herbaceous strips of fresh mint.
You can order the baba ghanoush either as an appetizer on its own for $7, or pair it with two other “spreads” for $15. Do the latter, and make sure to also ask for the muhammara, a spicy dip made with puréed red peppers, walnuts, smoked paprika and more pomegranates. It’s magnificent—hot, sweet and addictive. The hummus, another option on the “spreads” menu, is solid, if less imaginative than the others. Other choices include a spicy feta concoction and classic tzatziki.
While you might find yourself bickering with your friends and loved ones over who gets the final bite, the ideal way to experience Avlí is by ordering a bunch of smaller items and passing them around. A grilled octopus appetizer ($16) features a thick tentacle charred on the outside and served in a smear of yogurt, with mint, coriander, peanuts, garlic and even Rice Krispies strewn about the plate. The smoked fish rillettes ($11), a whipped fish spread topped with mustard seeds and a purple pickled egg, make for another excellent small plate. The “Gosselin’s salad” ($12), meanwhile, is a terrific tomato salad, served beneath a cloud of mozzarella mousse.
The entrées aren’t as impressive. A Portuguese chicken dish ($19) flavored with piri piri peppers has a nice spice profile but is underseasoned. The moussaka ($18), which boasts big chunks of flavorful eggplant, could also use another pinch of salt. Same goes for the avgolemono soup ($4-$7). The restaurant is also still figuring out some details. Avlí has a delicious-looking craft cocktail menu, but on one trip, my wife and I were told the bartender capable of making those drinks wasn’t in. That same trip, a promised “dessert of the day” had gone AWOL. Zaki, Aguiar and Gosselin worked in the restaurant business in Montreal for decades before relocating to Sarasota. Given their track record, I’m sure those issues will get worked out.
Like El Greco before it, Avlí is doing steady workday lunch business, and I’d venture to say it already offers one of the best lunch deals in the city. You can pick two courses for $14 or three for $16, and the portions are just as generous as if you ordered the items by themselves. I generally shun open-faced sandwiches (they’re not sandwiches, people!), but Avlí’s falafel sandwich, showered with pickled carrots and onions, makes for a delectable midday meal. If you like your coworkers, go ahead and invite them along and order a cavalcade of smaller dishes to split. Just make sure to snag the last bite before they do.
AVLÍ MESS HALL 1592 Main St., Sarasota, (941) 365-2234, avlionmain.com