Mediterranean Pace

The Olive Tree offers delightful Greek cuisine and time to chat with friends.

When the Olive Tree first opened its doors, we fondly referred to the east side of town as El Paso, simply because it seemed so far away. These days, Tanque Verde is a regular river of traffic, and the Olive Tree offers a welcome eddy from the flow.

You'll find the dining room to be cozy as an intimate venue devoted to Greek cuisine. The narrow room is edged with booths and elegantly set tables, and deep blue tones provide an exuberant Mediterranean note, which follows through on the menu.

One could easily and happily dine from just the appetizers listed on the menu. Over 14 offerings are found under appetizers. The loukanika ($7.50) is another plate of bright flavors. Homemade Greek sausage, nestled with roasted red bell peppers, sautéed in wine and served with a burst of sunny lemon creates a compressed plate of flavors.

Saganaki flambe ($8.50) or Opa, kefalograviera cheese flambéed tableside, brings cries of "Opa!" by exuberant servers. The platter is held aloft, flames jump high, the peanut gallery oohs and ahs, and the flame is doused with a wedge of lemon. Served with a flourish, this is a festive and stylish way to begin a meal. Kefalograviera holds up to the heat and transforms into a savory golden wedge that makes a wonderful addition to the warm crusty bread on the table.

A small plate of feta cheese and Kalamata olives ($5.50), or tzatziki and pita ($5.95), or eggplant salad ($5.95), baked and pureed eggplant served with pita bread, create a lovely series of tastes and flavors. Pan-fried calamari ($7.95) and sautéed mushrooms ($5.95), both small servings, are well prepared, and could easily provide a meal. The bright flavors of the Mediterranean are hard to resist, and we reluctantly left the splendid array of flavors, and forged on to sample entrees.

Despite the fact that the dining room is cozy, we found the service to be flustered and slightly distracted. We waited quite some time for our server to return between courses, and even though our server was cheerful, and easily the best at bellowing "Opa!" in the room, we found ourselves tapping fingers and forks between courses.

Although our server asked us if we wanted soup or salad before our entree, the question was asked in the same breath as which vegetable we preferred (on this evening asparagus or green beans) and which starch (potato, rice or orzo). We made our selections carefully, some of us with an inward sigh that we had to face another large round of food. It wasn't until the end of the meal that we realized our server failed to inform us that soups and salads were not a part of the meal, and we had incurred an additional charge. Given that we probably wouldn't have ordered salads or soups, we were irritated by this oversight.

The soup, avgolemeno, a lemony chicken and rice soup, was perfectly lovely. The salads were your garden variety of salad--some cucumber, black olives and tomato. Our waiter had asked us if we'd like anchovy, and some in our party had made this choice. However, no anchovy arrived, and plates were whisked away before we could even point out the omission to our server.

The shish kabob ($18.50) was a handsome plate. A large juicy platter of vegetables (onions, tomato, peppers and squash) was alternated with succulent chunks of grilled meat. Served with tomato-bathed green beans, and a large wedge of potato, this plate honored its simple flavors and humble origin.

Sautéed shrimp and pasta ($17.95) sounded appealing, but the large mound of overcooked spinach linguine topped with four small tough shrimp and drowned in a cheesy cream sauce didn't sit well with us. This was a plate that was overpriced and inferior in its presentation and basic preparation.

The roast leg of lamb ($18.50) was an uncomplicated plate, and it succeeded because of its simplicity. Slices of roasted lamb, unadorned, were tender and roasted to a delicate pink. Tender asparagus and a light orzo completed and honored simple, basic flavors.

Should you require a heartier plate, try the pikilia ($19.50). A large platter composed of many small servings of traditional dishes offers the indecisive or very hungry diner many options. The dolmades, served warm, are stuffed with lamb and rice and dressed in a creamy lemon sauce. A wedge of mousaka was vibrant in its flavors: eggplant, layered with ground lamb, a rich tomato sauce, spiked with a breath of cinnamon. A fragrant wedge of spanakopita, golden and flaky filo stuffed with seasoned spinach and feta, provided a rich and earthy note to the platter. Finally, a small offering of gyros rounded out the plate. Slivers of roasted lamb were served on pita with some slivers of onion. Our waiter promised us he would bring the side of tzatziki, but this failed to ever appear.

Although we finished our meals, and were mostly pleased with them, by now we were growing irritated with the service. Plates were finally cleared, and we waited for quite some time before our server breathlessly asked us if we wanted dessert. We selected a homemade cheesecake and baklava and Greek coffee. Perhaps we should have known better and tried to round up a check and leave, but we had decided to linger. Desserts were acceptable. Baklava was laden with honey and nuts. The cheesecake, a declared homemade recipe, was a perfectly simple and creamy. Greek coffee, a gritty and tooth-rattling version of espresso, certainly cut through any lingering afterglow.

Our bill eventually arrived, but long after we had hoped to have it. Still, we had enjoyed one another's company enough that we decided to view this not so much as sloppy service as the opportunity to spend more time with one another.

Perhaps this is what you will enjoy most if you visit the Olive Tree, the opportunity to surrender yourself to a slightly different time and space dimension, one with cheerful flavors, the victory cry of "Opa!" and long stretches of time to occupy as you please. Rather than staring off into space or chewing on your napkin, we recommend you spend it chatting with friends.

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