It was a total fluke that I ended up at the Olive Cafe the other day for a heavenly solo lunch.
I had a meeting on Commercial Street, and my route there took me by the cafe. I realized it had been years since the last time I’d eaten there.
Later, as I was wandering back to work, headphones on and in a daze, my internal lunch bell starting ringing. So, I retraced my steps back to the Olive Cafe and was seated next to the window by the friendliest waiter you’d ever want to meet.
I know two things about Lebanese Mediterranean food: Anytime I’ve had it, I’ve loved it, and I need be eating more of it.
That said, I started my meal off with one the day’s specials, which I don’t think is of the Lebanese persuasion but was one of the best things I’ve had all year. It was the butternut squash ginger soup ($5), and the flavor echoed around my mouth long after swallowing. I could have sat there and eaten a gallon of it.
But I had lunch, part two to attack, and that came in the form of the chicken shawarma ($9.50). Shawarma refers to meat that’s been cooked for a good long time, sometimes up to an entire day. I am not sure what methods Olive Cafe uses, but the end result was mouth-watering. The sandwich is grilled chicken, garlic sauce, tahini sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles wrapped in pita bread. All of these ingredients played a role in making it so tasty. Per usual, I initially thought I’d bring half back to the office for a late afternoon snack, but, of course, I ate the entire thing. Other options for shawarma on the Olive menu are beef, shrimp, falafel, haddock, fatoush (hummus), ya baba (baba ganoush) and Brussels sprouts. I pretty much want to try all of those, though I might pass on the fish.
But Olive Cafe isn’t just about shawarma. It has thin-crust pizzas ($13 to $16) with toppings including Brussels sprouts and baba ganoush (as well as chicken and beef shawarma). There are also four kinds of tacos ($9.50) and four kinds of salads ($9.50, including the Beirut, which is romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, tomatoes, fried cauliflower, garbanzo beans, toasted sesame seeds and tahini vinaigrette.
But what really jumped off the menu — and what I’ll be trying on my next trip to the Olive Cafe — is one of the plates ($13 to $17). They have six in all: Mediterranean, vegetarian, chicken kabob, lamb kabob, baked haddock and baked kibbi (shell of ground beef and cracked wheat stuffed with pine nuts, white onions and pomegranate syrup served with rice and toped with mint-cucumber yogurt). I’m all about the Mediterranean plate, which is hummus, falafel, tahini sauce, seasoned and fried cauliflower, house salad and fresh pita bread. Heck, yes.
My final thoughts on the Olive Cafe are about the atmosphere. It’s right in the heart of the Old Port but is a chill and unassuming spot with gloriously low lighting and kitchen chairs that are close to a version from my childhood. By the time I left, it was filling up, and I was glad to see that. Although it could be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, the food is terrific and affordable.
WHERE: 127 Commercial St., Portland; 772-6200; olivecafeportland.com
HOURS: Open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
WAIT: Less than 10 minutes
PARKING: On the street
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes