You don't have to travel to Scarborough Fair to indulge in the shades and flavors of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The new Olive Café uses plenty of fresh herbs in its dishes and serves steaming pots of sage tea. That beverage is a beautiful, amber-colored brew with a sublime fragrance. It reportedly is powerful in allaying migraines, bronchitis and nervous exhaustion, but it isn't the only restorative item on the menu here.
The first Olive Café, a combination grocery, butcher shop, bistro and bakery on the East Side, may have one of the least inviting dining rooms in the metro. The food is very good, though — the best pita bread in Kansas City comes from its oven — and the recipes have made it from James A. Reed Road to midtown without a hitch. The four-month-old Olive Café on Broadway is also considerably more visually appealing, done up in shades of freshly picked sage and Granny Smith-apple green. Sunny and attractive, it's an uncluttered, almost spartan space. No one will confuse it with the wildly jumbled interior of the original.
Jerusalem native Salah Mansi opened that first Olive Café seven years ago. Wishing to place his sons in the restaurant business, he opened the Gyro House on Linwood Boulevard for his elder son. That business failed. Mansi's younger son, 21-year-old Haron, is the operator of the second Olive Café, and I think he got the better deal. The spacious restaurant is one of the more appealing Middle Eastern venues in a neighborhood already crowded with them (Jerusalem Café, Aladdin Café, Jerusalem Bakery).
"This isn't just a Middle Eastern restaurant," explained server and cook Steven, the Brazilian-born brother-in-law of Haron Mansi. "We serve a universal cuisine."
Let's see, in addition to the grilled-meat kebabs, tabbouleh, hummus and gyros (claimed as an invention by both Greeks and Turks), there are traditional Indian samosas on the Olive Café menu, a Greek salad — and french fries. OK, that's close enough to universal.
The fries are a big seller here. Midtown customers like them alongside the Olive's overstuffed chicken shawarma sandwiches and on the gyro platter with its thinly sliced roasted lamb and beef, creamy hummus and wedges of that excellent pita from Salah Mansi's bakery.
"We also have a Lebanese vegan pita, made without dairy," Haron Mansi says.
On one bitter-cold day, I brought some of this café's signature meatless items to a vegetarian friend of mine, who loved the fat, savory samosas with cubes of potatoes and green beans tightly wrapped in a pastry crust and the divinely smooth hummus, liberally dusted with coarsely ground, reddish-purple sumac powder. The samosas (including an excellently seasoned ground-beef version) come with a rustic, dilly tsatsiki sauce in which pebble-sized bits of fresh cucumber meet fiery Thai chili sauce.
The midtown Olive Café got off to a slow start — the unassuming building really needs a more eye-catching sign — but is developing a loyal following. The clientele is as varied as the menu: students, residents from the nearby Valentine neighborhood, women in traditional hijab headdress, handsome Indian bachelors, and raucous hookah smokers from the place next door. The dining room, with its barrel-shaped ceiling, is big enough to never seem crowded. I've been encouraging friends to eat there, if only to help Mansi pay the heating bills. His space was luxuriously warm on a bone-chilling December night, which was delightful to discover. But he'll need to sell a hell of a lot of hummus to keep that going.
My teeth were actually chattering on the frigid evening that I arrived with Kitty and Carol Ann. It was only after my second cup of sage tea — served in dainty glass cups, from a pot that looked as if it had survived the Ottoman Empire — that I really felt thawed-out. The Olive Café serves mint tea, too, but the staff encourages the sage brew because the Mansi family brings it back with them from the Middle East.
The kitchen took its time, but no one in the place seemed to care on the nights I was there. Kitty, Carol Ann and I shared hummus and samosas and crispy patties of delectably crunchy falafel before our dinners arrived. I had asked for something hot, and Mansi obliged with a bowl of kalyah, a satisfying stew of ground beef, tomatoes, onion, chopped garlic and slices of tongue-searing jalapeño peppers. You eat the stew folded into wedges of warm pita, and it's hearty enough for two people to share.
This restaurant's specialty is grilled meats. Carol Ann ordered the combo kebab plate, with skewers of moist, marinated chicken and lamb on a bed of fluffy, saffron-colored rice. My friend Kathy, a meat-and-potatoes girl, is a little wary of Middle Eastern fare. The menu seemed too exotic to her, and she wavered in making a decision until Steven, the Brazilian waiter, urged her to go for the grilled chicken. That sounded familiar enough, and Kathy was pleased with the delicately seasoned grilled bird — not spicy, not dry — that came out covered with sauteed squash, onions and peppers and splashed with fresh lemon juice and vinegar. (If you like tart, you'll love the Olive Café.) Kathy happily ate the dish with plenty of the chunky tsatsiki sauce.
Inconsistency is rarely to be celebrated in restaurants, but the Olive Café's eccentricities amuse me. There are two soups on the menu: vegetable and lentil. Steven, the server, dismissed the former: "It's so ordinary." When I went in for lunch one day, I asked for lentil soup, and Steven announced: "We're sold out. We only have it on weekends." The following day, a Thursday, Mansi said he had the lentil soup and brought out the creamy, vivid yellow concoction along with a small bowl filled with thin ribbons of sliced pita bread, soaked in lemon juice and sprinkled with sumac. "You put the bread in the soup to give it extra flavor," Mansi advised me. I did, and it did.
For dessert, there's baklava or a grainy square of cake called harisseh, a crumbly semolina-and-yogurt delicacy liberally soaked in rosewater-scented sugar syrup. It was a smart finale for a dessert addict like me: one bite and I was completely sated.
Unfortunately for me, though, the front counter, where customers pay their tabs, is heaped with imported British sweets such as Cadbury Crunchie and TimeOut bars in glittering foil wrappers. I couldn't resist temptation and bought one. Or two.
Is a terrific display of British candy part of the universal sensibility of the Olive Café? Mansi answered my question: "Many immigrants from the Middle East live in Europe first before coming to the United States. They learn to love English candy."
Me, too. But here's a hint: Eat it with several cups of sage tea. It's a combination that works in any culture.