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Olive Café

Thin but strong
By BRIAN DUFF  |  January 21, 2009

A NEW TWIST: The “egg sandwich wrap.”

Olive Café | 127 Commercial St, Portland | Mon-Fri 8 am-5 pm; Sat 8 am-3 pm | Visa/MC/Disc | 207.772.6200
When Big Mama's closed a few months ago, many of us who trudge into the Old Port most mornings knew we would miss one thing most of all: the greasy, perfect egg, cheese, and sausage sandwich for $3. So it was with relief that I noticed the new Olive Café, just around the corner, has a similar sandwich for $3.50. But I never even tried it. That's because in addition to that sandwich, Olive Café offers "Mediterranean cuisine" — the miracle diet that keeps you slender; fights cancer, Alzheimer's, and heart disease; and even helps stop bleeding by promoting the production of something called "fibrinogen."

The regulars at Big Mama's, god bless them, tended to be a bit big, a touch sickly, and may even have bled profusely when pricked. The couple who run Olive is thin and healthy looking. I decided to go native.

In the morning that was easier said than done, since the breakfast menu is pretty straightforwardly American — the aforementioned egg sandwich, pancakes, French toast, eggs. But the "egg sandwich wrap" mentioned olive oil and pita bread, which was good enough for me. It was quite good, actually. It has no salty meat, just eggs, sautéed onion, tomato, and freshly chopped oregano. The eggs were fried to be just runny enough to impart that fatty yolkiness you want, but not so thin that it would make a big mess if you took it to go — in which case ask them to put some salt and pepper in there for you.

But eating in was pleasant with a good dark coffee and the morning light spilling onto the wood floor. And that way you can properly enjoy the hash browns, with more diced fresh herbs, big pieces of onion, and potatoes with a bit of crunch but not fried beyond recognition. They have painted the walls yellow, which seems like a popular choice these days, and built some brown booths. With just three other tables the little space does not feel cluttered, but airy and light. An ugly heater was getting the job done on a cold morning.

The lunch menu (perhaps soon to include dinner, as they serve beer and wine), is more Mediterranean — leaning toward Lebanon, where the owner was born. The strength of this cuisine is fresh ingredients, expertly herbed and spiced. At Olive they seemed to be doing it right. The falafel, for example, was the most distinctive I have had in a while. The chickpea was hearty, dense, and not overfried. The dominant flavor was the slight bitterness of roasted coriander — so strong in fact that we guessed it been ground and roasted that day (a good sign even if we wished it had been used with more restraint). The hummus is tahini-sweet and thick but creamy. You can get both in a pita, which was soft and fresh, or on a plate with salad and cauliflower.

Or you can get that pita with Shawarma, though not of the rotating-hunk-of-lamb variety. Rather, you get tender seasoned chicken, with a really terrific thin, sour, yogurty garlic sauce, pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes. Sandwiches come with nicely seasoned fries, cooked with the same restraint as the hash browns.

With the fish taco you get a huge pile of coleslaw, yellow-tinged and bitter in the way of freshly chopped cabbage, offset by sweet bits of carrot. The taco itself, a point of continuity with the old One Eyed Jack's that was in this space, was well seasoned and Cajun-warm, though the fish was a hair overcooked. We wished there had been more of the greenish creamy sauce.

What you don't find much of on the menu at Olive is olives. I think they are included on one of the salads, and you could probably get them to toss a few on the pizzas they also serve. It's probably for the best. Mediterranean cuisine is seductive enough without tempting us with nature's perfect food — sharp, salty, earthy, with textures that constantly surprise. If Olive had olives then this town's greasy spoons would really have something to worry about.

Brian Duff can be reached at

Related: Josephs Two, New Rod Dee, Bina Osteria, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , African and Middle Eastern Food and Cooking, cheap eats, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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