When I visit Olive Tree Café at lunch hour on a Thursday, I learn that owner Elias Rhanim is out shopping—in northern New Jersey—for some of the specialty items offered at his Mediterranean restaurant. They include good macarons and delicious Turkish pide (or pita), things the kitchen of his cozy restaurant simply doesn’t have the capacity to produce.
But rest assured, everything else in this tiny gem is bought locally—not from big food purveyors—and prepared fresh, by hand, with no small amount of reverence for culinary tradition. It is also prepared with the hope that Rhanim and his partner, wife Stephanie Ferrell, can educate those who are not familiar with Mediterranean cuisine. Indeed, the menu is an excellent primer, but the food is also diverse enough to please even the most experienced.
The dip sampler allows your choice of three traditional styles, including hummus.
So we decided, on a busy Saturday night, to graze widely. Olive Tree makes it easy by offering a few samplers in proportions large enough to satisfy without stuffing. We started with a selection of dips: zaalouk of roasted eggplant, taktouka of roasted bell pepper and bakoula of spinach and olive. Each is blended with a generous amount of olive oil and nicely seasoned. The dips are served with warm pita, though vegetables are available for a small upcharge.
The sampler of appetizers features items that may be familiar to most folks, but Olive Tree’s are exceptional. The spinach-feta pies known as spanakopita were served as bite-sized triangles so perfectly formed, they could appear to be mass made. They are not. The phyllo was perfectly crisp and flaky, with just enough feta to compliment the spinach without overwhelming its delicate flavor. The grape leaves of the dolmeh, served warm, had a light lemony tang with an exceptionally moist rice filling. The chick pea falafel was, in a word, the best I have ever tasted—crispy outside, moist inside—not the dried, fried balls or patties that are otherwise so common.
The falafel is among the best in the area.
Rhanim was born in Morocco, though raised in Paris, where he worked in hotels and restaurants, all while making notes for the restaurant he wanted to someday own. Olive Tree acknowledges the French influence through various crepes, croissants and quiches, as well as dishes such as steak au poivre on Fridays and Saturdays and a meal-sized Nicoise salad. Even Italy makes an appearance on the menu, via a changing selection of pasta dishes, a good Tuscan vegetable soup and a Caprese salad. The rest of the food can be traced directly to Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and Spain, and the clientele seems to reflect the diversity. The international presence is due in some part to proximity to the University of Delaware, but the full dining room on a Saturday night could be due only to delicious food. As word has increased over the past 18 months, so has the number of diners.
Olive Tree seats about 50. Its walls are painted the colors of olive oil, warm saffron and turmeric, with beautifully stylized olive trees painted in gold. Hand-carved wooden screens from Morocco separate the small bar. Large windows in the front admit a flood of sunlight by day. Pendant lamps, also from Morocco, provide soft light in the evening. There is no break between lunch and dinner service, so except for the very busiest of times, diners are encouraged to linger.
The simple but delicious beet salad can accompany any entrée
The menu offers many of the dishes one would expect: the salad of the crushed bulghar wheat known as tabbouleh, the zesty tzatziki salad of cucumber and mint in rich Greek yogurt, and beef, chicken and lamb prepared as cubed kebabs or ground kefta.
The last appears most spectacularly as beef meatballs in mildly garlicky tomato sauce roasted in a tagine. Tagine describes both the food and the traditional ceramic pot it is cooked in. The vessel’s conical shape and chimney retain enough moisture to prevent the meat within from drying while generating enough heat and pressure to cook quickly. The result is tender meat suffused with the flavors of the other ingredients.
Olive Tree offers tagines of lemony chicken with olives and potatoes, fish with potatoes and peppers, and more, including savory lamb mellowed with prunes, dried apricots and almonds. The meatballs can be ordered with an egg cracked into the sauce. The melding of rich yolk with the tomato sauce is divine. The accompanying rice revealed just a hint of cumin.
We also enjoyed grilled lamb chops, which were prepared at the requested medium rare. (That’s a kitchen that knows its stuff.) The chops are served with two sauces: cooling tzatziki and peppery hot harissa. All entrées are served with your choice of rice, handcut fries, sautéed green beans, grilled vegetables or any of the menu’s small salads. We found the diced beets in lemon vinaigrette to be a perfect match for the lamb.
Mediterranean fare offers numerous options for vegetarians and pescatarians. All meats are halal. The dessert list covers the region: crème brûlée and macarons from France, tiramisu and gelato from Italy, and traditional baklava and butter cookies from throughout the Mediterranean. The few beers offered cover traditional European styles and a few craft bottles. The small list of imported wines does an impressive job of representing most varietals.
I regret not trying Olive Tree’s pastilla, a pie of ground chicken and almonds between layers of phyllo dusted with cinnamon and sugar—a personal favorite—but that gives me a reason to visit again soon.
And a final note: Though price and quality of food sometimes have no correlation, the Olive Tree Café is an exception. You can feast like a sultan on disproportionately delicious food without hurting your wallet in the least.
13 Chestnut Hill Plaza, Newark, 266-4598, olivetreecafede.com | PRICES: Appetizers, $4.50-$12; entrées, $12.50-$17. | RECOMMENDED DISHES: appetizer sampler, kefta tagine.