AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES OF OPENING MORE than 25 world-class restaurants throughout Montreal, Canada and Alexandria, Egypt, where was restaurateur Edward Zaki to go from there? Learn how to sail and take his wife Mila on a yearlong sabbatical and catamaran around the world? Maybe. It was a possibility. But Zaki wasn’t ready to throw in the dish towel and retire from restaurants quite yet. Still at the helm of acclaimed French restaurant Chez Victoire in Montreal with partner and Executive Chef Alexandre Gosselin, the duo of 15 years had a yearning for a new venture—something was pulling them down south, but not to another big, fast-paced, densely populated city like Miami or LA, already saturated with plenty of options for elevated ethnic cuisine. Stumbling upon Sarasota, on what seemed like a serendipitous happenstance, Zaki and Chef Gosselin snatched up an opportunity on the corner of Main Street and Orange Avenue as a sign of new beginnings. The team was eager to bring the mini metropolis something they hadn’t quite tapped into yet here, a breath of fresh air to the evolving foodie subculture downtown. Enter Avlí Mess Hall Mediterranean Kitchen & Bar.

Lamp chop special. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.


Locals may have noticed the long-standing orange paint of the former El Greco’s facade change to a bright coastal blue, evocative of the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. But the real transformation happened inside. Zaki, Gosselin and General Manager Mila Aguiar went to work renovating the entirety of the interior—gutting the original infrastructure to basically nuts and bolts for a fresh start. After knocking down a wall or two, removing a layer of the ceiling once or twice, adding in a bar and trading out dark carpet for cobblestone-esque flooring, the “open courtyard” concept of avlí, (from ancient Greek,) came to life with a bright, enlivened, homey space. And with “mess hall,” meaning a place where groups of people meet or gather to eat, drink, laugh and socialize, the opened space can live up to its name. 

Zaki Gosselin and General manager Mila Aquiar. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.


“We wanted to bring to Sarasota what we do in Montreal,” says Aguiar. “Flavorful Mediterranean-styled food — without boundaries or restrictions on a specific country—all fresh, made in-house, locally sourced, with a Montreal flair.” From a vibrant bar with hightops to more cozy, casual seating and a designated, formal dining area, Avlí Mess Hall invites all types of gatherings to convene and converse.

Gosselin's Salad. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.


Share meze plates of Pickled Olives, Smoked Fish Rillettes, Fried Calamari or Zucchini Beignets, and then uncork a bottle of white Assyrtiko, arguably Greece’s most iconic wine grape variety, indigenous to the island of Santorini. Hot mezes like Cairo Falafel, Alexandria Kefta, Spanakopita and tapas style spreads of spicy feta, tzatziki, Syrian baba ganoush, farmers market hummus and muhammara served with grilled pita to please the masses and go down nice with Alpha beer, a traditional Greek lager. If the evening’s going swimmingly, stick around for the homemade Baklava dessert with pistachio, almond, thyme honey and pickled cherries or a couple rounds of Pasion Alegria, an artisan sangria from Spain made from red wine of native varietals, citrus fruits and cinnamon.

While international mixed tunes emanate throughout, the decor romanticizes Southern European culture and coastlines with an eclectic collection of design elements. Zaki and Aguiar took to yard sales, antique shops and Circus City Architectural Salvage to deck out the refreshed space. Swing doors distressed in blues and greens and hanging from the ceiling by link chains are not hard to spot, along with a mini clawfoot bathtub filled with firewood logs, a captain’s wheel, nautical rope knots, brass-detailed candleholders, a vintage wine rack and an upcycled metal boudoir made into a server station. It doesn’t take long for Avlí to dispatch diners to a boho fishing village along the Mediterranean Sea. And back where the magic happens, Chef Gosselin showcases his extensive French training with an affinity for healthy, wholesome ingredients, and an eye for balancing colors and flavors when plating. Avlí’s farm-to-table Mediterranean cuisine means Gosselin’s kitchen cuts no corners—baking their own breads, preparing their own dressings, cooking all meats and fish over a wood fire, and sourcing only locally grown produce. But while many Sarasotan foodies have now come to expect much of the aforementioned already from new restaurants, Avlí sets itself apart with a contemporary flair and some unexpected twists. Gosselin’s French-style cooking tends to get playful with adventurous dish combinations and alternative takes on other country’s ingredients and spices. Piri Piri Chicken Breast sizzles off the charcoal grill with cheddar potato puree and smoked paprika yogurt. The Moussaka comes stacked with prime ground beef, zucchini, eggplant, béchamel and tomatoes in herb oil and cinnamon. The Saganaki with seared cheese and ouzo arrives tableside, flambé lit in a cast-iron pan with fluffy pita bread, while Grilled Octopus uniquely boasts mint, coriander, peanuts, yogurt, black garlic and rice krispies. 

“His dishes are like works of art,” says Zaki of his partner. “You don’t even want to touch them. And as visually beautiful as the presentation is, the well-balanced flavors of acidity and texture—with ingredients you may not think necessarily go together—create a mind-blowing culinary and cultural experience.”