Route 31 is a busy thoroughfare, particularly the section south of the 590 ramp and north of the Pittsford village. It's a suburban, commercial juggernaut. Get a bestseller fix at Barnes & Noble, a bag of frozen Parisian carrots at Trader Joe's, a whimsical serving platter at People's Pottery, a Pomeranian-sized Christmas sweater at Petco — all of it, and more, is located within a mile-long strip of road.
And then there are the restaurants. If you were particularly hungry, or training for a major-league competitive eating event, there are few places in the Greater Rochester area with a retail-space-to-calorie-ratio as dense. You can get surf 'n' turf at Black & Blue, Thai at Mamasan's, carrot-cake-cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory, burgers at Five Guys, Italian at Mario's, Benucci's, and Pomodoro. And that's not even considering a slew of fast-food joints.
At the northern end of this strip, across the street from Clover Lanes and neighboring a Comfort Inn, is Rumi's Grill & Cafe. Its namesake is Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi mystic and poet, and the restaurant's ethos comes from this quote attributed to him: "Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come."
"We would like [the community] to eat all under the same roof, regardless of race, religion, creed, etc.," says owner Ahmet Nukyen. "Put all differences aside and have meals together."
Nukyen seems successful in this: his restaurant attracts people of all ages, skin tones, and, it seems, varying zip codes. If you can look past the architecture of the restaurant (it resides in the bones of a by-gone Pizza Hut) and a few items perhaps designed to cater to more American palates ("Original Cheesecake Xangos™") you may find it to be one of the least commercial, most authentic eateries in the Pittsford commercial zone.
Rumi's features cuisine from across the Mediterranean, but there's a particular emphasis on Turkish foods. Take, for example, ayran ($2.49), a salty, acerbic yogurt drink packaged in a small blue-and-white plastic bottle; mercimek ($3.95), a soup made from red lentils; and lahmacun, a thin, flat bread topped with spiced, ground beef ($2.95).
The restaurant shines brightly when it focuses on traditional preparations, a number of which you can sample in the Mediterranean antipasta platter ($12) featuring dolmades, eggplant in tomato sauce, hummus, olives stuffed with almonds, and artichoke hearts drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
The grape leaves used in the dolmades are soft with the tiniest snap, stuffed with a yielding, almost creamy rice flavored with mint and dill. The hummus is thick and rich, with a pronounced sesame flavor. It's hearty; not as smooth and loose as other versions. When you swipe a rectangle of the focaccia-like bread served with your meal through the hummus, it parts in the center but stands tall and firm — the Red Sea of dips.
The best part of the antipasta platter, however, is the eggplant with tomatoes. Chunky bits of custardy eggplant are surrounded by a tomato sauce spiked with red vinegar and garlic. There's just the right balance of flavors: sweet toward the tip of your tongue, then a tangy, slightly acid finish. The eggplant can be ordered on its own as an appetizer special; look for the Mediterranean eggplant ($8).
Eggplant stars again in Rumi's baba ganoush ($6.95), classically made with roasted and pureed eggplant, tahini, olive oil, garlic, and herbs. Though pureed, the eggplant isn't an unappealing mush; there are small, toothy strands reminding you of the vegetable's earlier form, and it's a pleasure to feel the contrast of that against the silkiness from the tahini and oil.
The adana ($14.95), which comes with a choice of sides, is a blend of seasoned and finely chopped lamb and beef. The adanas are formed into long, cylindrical patties around skewers before being grilled. The lamb's flavor is rich but mellowed by the beef. There's a touch of char and a slightly spicy finish.
Similarly satisfying are the lamb ($17.95) or beef ($15.95) shish kabob platters, which are also served with a choice of sides. Both are simply prepared — a few seasonings before being flame grilled — and hit the spot. The beef is cut from filet mignon (this cut comes from the smaller end of a beef tenderloin) and retains that appealing tenderness. The lamb is mild, tender, and sweet; if you like lamb, this is a good way to enjoy it.
The BBQ lamb ribs special ($18.95) — a Flintstones-sized rack of ribs — is not as successful. The rich gaminess of the meat doesn't jibe with the sweetness of the sauce.
The service at Rumi's, while warm and friendly, can be uneven. Empty dishes lingered on the table too long, and water glasses occasionally remained unfilled. But your server will happily answer any questions you may have about the menu, help you choose dishes that suit your tastes, and remember you when you come back to dine again.
There are Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flourishes in the decor and atmosphere — brightly colored paisley wallpaper; photographs of the landscape; nazar amulets designed to ward off the evil eye — but not quite enough to shake the feeling that you're eating in a former Pizza Hut, which you are. Nukyen says he is working to make his restaurant to more comfortable for diners, and improvements in this area are forthcoming.
One thing that I hope does not change is the kunefe ($8.95), a dessert good enough to transport you from Monroe Avenue to its origin site in Turkey. Served on a small, hot metal plate with a one-inch lip, the kunefe sits in the middle, slightly domed, sprinkled with crushed, roasted pistachios and drenched in a honey-based syrup. Use your fork to part the layers of shredded phyllo and eat quickly. It's important to enjoy the kunefe while hot so that the cheese tucked inside — sweet and mild like an unsalted mozzarella — remains supple. It stretches a few inches from the plate to the fork, then gently snaps as you bring it to your mouth. The contrasts of crisp and chewy, sweet and salty, all underscored by heat, is lovely.
2735 Monroe Ave.
Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
CORRECTED 11/13/13 to correct an incorrect route number for Monroe Avenue.