It’s morning at Mandolin Aegean Bistro, and Anastasia Koutsioukis is breezing through the restaurant, gleefully greeting everyone as they begin their day’s work. She starts in the back, giving a joyful hello to the prep cooks, who wave back with knives in hand. She moves on to the bakery, where Mandolin’s resident baker is busy making the day’s pitas. After complimenting the bread’s smell she moves on to the front of the house, where she cheerfully says hi to the managers.
“It’s my favorite part of the day,” she smiles.
It’s a little like watching Belle traipse through her pastoral French village, chirping “Bonjour” to anyone who’ll listen. But the community Koutsioukis is greeting isn’t a town. It’s the world she and husband Ahmet Erkaya have built at Mandolin over 13 years, giving the city what she calls an “unofficial community center,” where people gather to break bread much like they do in the Old World.
In a city where restaurants arrive on the scene, trumpet their out-of-town pedigree, and then close just as quickly, Mandolin has become an institution — in the best way. It’s a romantic, outdoor space where the love from the Greek-Turkish couple permeates everything from the décor to the perfectly plated mezes.
“Mandolin is our love story,” Koutsioukis says. “It’s our two combined cultures coming together, and the spirit of the food we grew up eating. We were rivals culturally, but it was food that brought our families together and we found this common ground.”
It’s a touching story, but raw emotion doesn’t always translate into restaurant success. Especially when the restaurant world wasn’t one Koutsioukis even planned to be in.
Anastasia Koutsioukis was born to Greek immigrant parents, and grew up in Toronto experiencing the abundance of the city’s multicultural cuisines.
Her grandparents ran a Greek restaurant but discouraged their children and grandchildren from ever taking up the family business. Like many immigrants of that era, they wanted a life of education and easier work for later generations, so running a restaurant was never in Koutsioukis’ plan.
She moved to New York in the late ’90s and worked a variety of communications roles in the fashion and beauty world (anyone who’s admired the décor at Mandolin could probably have guessed). It was there she met her now-husband, and as most New Yorkers do, they began vacationing in Miami.
“We were always trying to go off the beaten path from Miami Beach,” she says. “And aside from a small handful of mom-and-pop places, there wasn’t a big local food scene at the time.”
The couple envisioned bringing a little bit of their favorite vacation spot — the Greek Islands — to Miami, creating the sort of fresh ingredient-driven fare that was severely lacking in South Florida.
“We would travel back to the Greek Islands, and we wanted to create something very similar to that,” she says. “That happy place that felt so charming, that had good food in an unpretentious setting.”
They looked in all the usual neighborhoods that were restaurant-ripe in 2009, but couldn’t find a space that fit. Then they stumbled upon the still-gritty residential enclave of Buena Vista, and a little dilapidated bungalow on NE 2nd Ave.
“I love old Florida and the architecture of old Florida, and that’s what attracted me to the place where Mandolin is,” she says. “And we were able to be the anchor and see beauty where others didn’t.”
Opening a garden restaurant in often-sweltering Miami had its detractors, especially in a neighborhood that was still only blocks from an area Koutsioukis called “Zombie Row.” But she likens opening a restaurant in Buena Vista during that time to being the first person on the dance floor. And as creativity attracts creativity, similar spots began to open.
“If we create these great places, our own mini-utopias, that will be inspiring to others,” she says. “And now every day, there’s new businesses turning this place around.”
So how did Mandolin find success in a city where even the biggest names in the business fail miserably? Koutsioukis says it has a lot to do with forging an identity that nobody else can duplicate.
“Waving your New York flag and using that as a way to launch here is not enough,” she says. “A lot of places come in and there’s no sense of identity, they’re trying to duplicate something they’ve already done. To make it here, you have to be part of (Miami’s) identity.”
Mandolin began forging its identity by working with fresh produce they grew themselves in a garden behind the restaurant. As the business grew, they began working with local farmers who grew crops exclusively for Mandolin, and now have farms who devote 80% of their harvest to the restaurant.
“Now, our chef gets a call at 5 a.m., and the delivery comes in, and that’s what he has to work with,” says Koutsioukis.
This Old World, cook-with-what-the-farmer-gave-you method of making food creates dishes unlike any in the city. Stuff like manti dumplings with garlic yogurt and Aleppo pepper. And charred brussels sprouts with pickled sweet peppers and tahini.
But what draws people back to Mandolin is more than food. The dim lights, soft breeze, and ambience of joyful noise create a space that’s become synonymous with romance and special occasions.
“Eating out is emotional,” she says. “So it’s not just about the food. It’s about creating intimacy, creating moments. Some of the best memories of our lives are created around food. And sometimes you don’t even remember the food you ate, but you remember how you felt.”
The feeling also comes from dining with a couple that manages to live, work, and raise a child together, a feat that’s seemingly impossible even without a restaurant to run. But Mandolin is life for both Koutsioukis and Erkaya, and rather than saying they take their work home with them, they prefer to say they bring their home to work.
That home includes the couple’s 8-year-old son Alex, a fixture at the restaurant who has already developed a palate far past the third-grade staples of cheese pizza and chicken fingers.
“If we go to a birthday party and there’s nothing there he likes, he’ll ask one of the moms if they have a piece of fruit,” Koutsioukis crows. “One of his favorite foods is octopus. He loves greens. He appreciates good food and he has an opinion on it for an 8-year-old.”
This summer, the family left the restaurant behind for an extended vacation to their home in the Greek Islands, where Koutsioukis reconnected with cooking and the great outdoors.
“I was reminded why I got into this business,” she says, gazing off to picture herself basking in the Mediterranean sun. “It was a beautiful moment, to sit back in my own garden, pick tomatoes and watermelons and watch them actually ripen. And then cooking again with my husband in the backyard. Those simple things are what bring me joy today.”
Summer is over, and Mandolin is back in full swing, with both partners back at the helm. They’ve also added a location in Los Angeles and the counter-service Mr. Mandolin to their family of restaurants, but Koutsioukis doesn’t seem the least bit stressed. In fact, she seems downright happy to be back doing what she loves, touching tables and the people who occupy them.
“People ask me what’s my favorite part about Miami, and I always say it’s the people,” she says. “The cultural diversity of this city has always intrigued me. The quality of life and the weather, that’s secondary to me. There’s this charm that still exists, and it’s only getting better.”