Even those who dine out rarely are likely to have experienced the near-ubiquitous tapas. But far fewer have had the pleasure of trying the Middle Eastern version of these small dishes, known as mezze. For those in the know, Café Olé, on Wisconsin Avenue just below Tenleytown, has been racking up kudos and devoted fans serving these petite gems and more.
With bold primary colors, chic Italian lighting, and a seriously casual atmosphere, this café and wine bar is a great place to hang out after a movie and enjoy great food. Not many places offer more than 25 wines by the glass, or nearly 50 menu items all less than $8. When the weather warms up, you can look forward to the large outdoor patio.
Over many, many visits made to Café Olé I've enjoyed dozens of mezze selections, both hot and cold, and a number stand out as my favorites. Kilic Sis is a tasty grilled swordfish kabob marinated in lemon, olive oil, garlic and paprika served on a bed of lemon rice. The flavor of this meaty fish soars in its simple marinade.
Tagine of lamb, a traditional Moroccan specialty, is well executed here with caramelized onions, carrots and orange zest served over Israeli couscous (the largest version you'll ever see of this usually tiny pasta) and garnished with curry aïoli and fresh mint.
Another favorite is Sultan's Stew -- beef simmered with onions, garlic and tomato combined with black beans and served atop basmati rice, pickled eggplant and yogurt sauce. Lebanese Celebration combines grilled chicken with wild thyme, sesame seeds and garlic over bulgur wheat and topped with scallions, hummus and lemon pepper aioli. That these diverse flavors combine to become something more than their individual contributions seems an almost magical accomplishment.
Polenta specials (all vegetarian and all dependably delicious) are offered daily after 5 p.m., but they are not the only vegetarian items on this menu. I love the grilled portabello, marinated in a paprika and lemon vinaigrette topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese, as well as the Toscana Salata, a cold dish of orzo pasta, kalamata olives, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers and parmesan cheese.
You'll find the traditional Mediterranean favorites here such as tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, and hummus, but you might be surprised by such creations as Tel Aviv nachos: crispy won tons piled with smoked salmon, labneh, red onion and Mediterranean guacamole. Or try Tapenade Olé combining lemon confit, roasted peppers, olives, tomato, pine nuts, basil and cumin oil served with grilled pita chips.
There's more to Café Olé than mezze, however, particularly the selection of panini. Try the Marrakesh --chicken marinated in sumac (dried Middle Eastern berries), cumin and garlic with grilled vegetables, lemon pepper aïoli and hummus. Also tempting is the Damascus Bazaar -- grilled beef soujouk sausage, feta cheese, cucumber, pickled vegetables and garlic yogurt.
Of the several interesting salads my favorite is the Casablanca with its smoked salmon over mixed greens, grilled fennel, jicama, lemon juice, olive oil and curry aioli. There are also rollups, mostly featuring the ingredients of mezze items, which work rather well in this hand-held form. I recommend the chicken shawarma, grilled chicken marinated in garlic and zahtar (a pungent aromatic herb also known as Syrian marjoram), served wrapped up with tomatoes, lettuce, turnips, onion and a creamy garlic yogurt.
And if all of the preceding weren't enough, there are some tasty soups as well, all of which vary daily. On a recent visit, hearty lentil soup with vegetables and sumac was just the thing for an absurdly cold winter evening.
You're sure to find something to satisfy your cravings here, unless you had your heart set on meat and potatoes. No wait, there's Shepherd's Pie Olé, a Mediterranean beef version topped with mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese. So if you're one of those folks who driven by Café Olé without stopping by for a taste, next time pull over and come on in. It's well worth the effort.