Those who suffer from the occasional Big Mac attack know the quandaries of braving too long a line to order dinner at a cash register. Do you order the apple pie and chance not having the stomach to eat it? Or do you wait to see how the burger sits and run the risk of having to stand in line all over again? Are Shamrock Shakes in season? Still, I’m ill-prepared when I think I’m done ordering at Café Olé and the counter man poses the question, “Tea sorbet?”
Café Olé, cleverly wedged into a storefront better suited for a Kinko’s, is a revelation on paper: a relatively cheap meze joint with a lot of wine by the glass, good cheese, better olives, and fast food that doesn’t force foodies to dress down their tastes. But Jacques Van Staden, former executive sous-chef at the swank Lespinasse on K Street NW, proves that bringing a downtown pedigree to Tenleytown isn’t as easy as slicing prices and being patient with the college kids: Getting an Olé employee to elaborate on the pickled aubergine is like trying to get stock advice at Taco Bell. The day I’m prodded into ordering tea sorbet, my dessert is brought by mistake to a table of beer-drinking students who, being students, take advantage of the mistake. Having waited long enough in line and then again for food, I leave without griping.
Still, the restaurant holds a certain allure; Tenleytown isn’t exactly flush with tantalizing dinner options. Despite being small, Olé’s dining room has an airy feelit’s high-ceilinged, sunny, and brightened by primary colors and curvy, mosaic-tile counter tops. The patio, removed enough from Wisconsin Avenue to render the car traffic invisible, seats 60; it’ll be interesting to see how the restaurant accommodates its current crowds once the weather gets cold.
Olé’s menu is an exhaustive, disorienting documentjust the way it should be. A meze meal is a feast for gluttons with short attention spans, composed of numerous taster-sized noshes, and while the word itself is Greek, Olé obliges without adhering to any one cuisine. During one meal, I eat through Italy (panzanella), the Middle East (baba ghanoush), North Africa (lamb tagine), France (pâté and cornichons) and Spain (seafood paella). And the small dishes are just the main focus. One lunch brings a burritolike sandwich stuffed with vegetables and Israeli couscousJerusalem via East L.A.
The list of cold meze is the longest and provides the best reasons for coming back. Traditional dips are given subtle tweakshummus contains whole roasted chick peasand with original items such as the house tapenade, which is a tart swirl of lemon confit, olives, tomatoes, roasted peppers, pine nuts, and basil infused with cumin oil, the kitchen shows it knows how to complement flat bread.
The dainty-portion, pseudo-takeout format allows Olé to charge dish-level prices for things you’d expect to be table items if the restaurant were purely sit-downolives, for instance, or the “Parmesan treat,” which is cheese and olive oil. This policy would be annoying if the restaurant were cutting corners and assuming that the mainstream movie crowd wouldn’t notice. But the prosciutto, paired with marinated artichokes, scallions, and shaved Parmesan, is worthy of Dean & DeLuca. And with most of the salad-y stuff, which is heavy on the ingredients without, for the most part, being overdone, the restaurant assumes a level of interest in food that’s rare for its genre. Cured and spiced salmon is delicious tossed with smoky grilled fennel, pickled peppers, barley, jicama, and a touch of curry aioli. By the end of the meal one night, we’re tossing whole garlic cloves, tamed by pickling and a speckling of sun-dried tomato tapenade, into our mouths like almonds.
Olé’s hot meze, many of which are available as hand-held wraps, are less inspired. The lamb tagine is girded by fatty meat, and recipes meant as entrees don’t always work well as thumbnail sketches. The seafood paella is most annoying: It’s impossible to do justice to all of the alleged goodies, much less provide ample rice, when the portion is small enough to get lost on your palm. But the kitchen redeems itself with its panini sandwichesthe bread is perfectly charred, and the sandwich maker doesn’t confuse them with hoagies by piling the meat a mile highand the selection of coffees and desserts. (Yes, the baklava is lovely.)
Olé is not immune to misguided cuteness (the world needs salads in a cone as much as it needs pizza in a cup), but its real problems are in executing the fusion of fast food and fine dining. The restaurant may have the vague feel of a chainone server says it aims to bebut it isn’t run like one. With employees who routinely have as many questions about the food as the customers, the line to order can take forever, canceling out the time you’re supposed to save in the process. The wait staff, which delivers orders but doesn’t take them, hasn’t figured out what to do with all the down time; one night a woman asks us, “Is everything all right?” so often that we’re very much tempted to tell her to go away. The upside is that staff is trainable; good ideas, on the other hand, are hard to come by. And if you order right at Café Olé, everything else becomes invisible.
Café Olé, 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 244-1330.
“I’ve been to Easter Island,” claims a reader who wasn’t fooled by the faux tiki torches at Poli-Tiki, a dark wood beer barn that aims to transport its patrons to Polynesia. Don’t expect the tropics to blow your way with a food order, thoughthe noodles are as dreary as the surroundings, and the pu-pu platter, a wooden tray filled with wan dumplings and calamari and decent chicken wings and satay, is still more fun to say than to eat from. The best advice is to order an exotic cocktail stuck with an umbrella and a long, curlicue straw, and drink until hunger becomes a lesser priority.
Poli-Tiki, 319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 546-1001.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.