Restaurant review: Olive Tree branches throughout Mediterranean for flavorful inspiration

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Olive Tree in Hilliard is distinct enough to be commonplace. That sentence sounds oxymoronic, but here’s why it makes sense: The metropolitan Columbus area is rife with terrific restaurants in strip malls — like The Olive Tree — that are ethnic eateries with individualistic spins. Olive Tree’s distinguishing feature is a passport-type menu that travels around the region generally described as “Middle Eastern.”

Frequented by a broad fan base, Olive Tree wears its popularity with aplomb. While its food merits the attention, the hands-on personal touch of founder/owner/chef David Mor (an Israeli expatriate) did much to engender the good will.

So when I heard Mor had retired and sold the place to a Texas-based consortium, I wondered how Olive Tree would fare without him. Fortunately, the new owners have mostly taken an “if it ain’t broke” approach to operating the restaurant.

Olive Tree’s predominantly blond wood interior is simple but pleasant enough. Bright and upbeat, it could’ve been designed during a shopping spree at World Market.

Spanning various cuisines near the Mediterranean Sea, “world market” could also describe Olive Tree’s menu. Beers from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Italy and Spain are available. Wines likewise bounce around that area (try the inexpensive Rene Barbier from Spain, $18 per bottle).

From the hot appetizers, the Hummus Ful ($7.50) layers creamy and tahini-rich hummus underneath a pool of soupy, tangy, spicy and chunky bean dip. Served with warm pita (practically everything is), it’s a wonderful yin-and-yang combination.

The Olive Tree-O ($9.50) is a pick-three, discounted cold appetizer sampler. Try these winning dips: Matbucha (fiery chili, tomato and garlic blend popular in Israel and North Africa); Machmusa (sweet and silky, slow-roasted eggplant, tomato and onion); and thick and garlicky Grecian tzatziki.

Greece is also represented with minty, rice-filled vegetarian Grape Leaves($5) and Moussaka ($15).The outstanding moussaka is a loose, lasagna-type construction that pushes a lot of feel-good buttons: melted cheese and creamy, nutmeggy bechamel sauce, zippy tomato sauce, chunks of comforting ground beef, and deeply roasted potatoes and eggplant. Like many entrees, it comes with a large bowl of rustic, veggie-laden soup — either earthy lentil or strong-tasting seafood.

Two dinners served with cinnamon-scented rice tasted great and featured attractively seared proteins. Both would’ve been better with more tender meats.

One was the lusty Kabob Combo ($20), with huge skewers of blistered onions and peppers playing off smoky chicken breast, aromatic kafta and herbed shish kabob. The other was Grilled Salmon ($16) — OK fish brightened by a pleasant lemon sauce.

Olive Tree’s terrific Sunday breakfast outshines its dinner service. Among the many rare-around-town, meatless dishes offered are its excellent hummus ful further enriched with hard-cooked egg ($8.75).

The Sabich ($6), identified as “Iraqi Jewish,” is my new favorite breakfast sandwich. Thick potato discs and caramelized eggplant bolster hard-baked egg slices topped with an Israeli salad (diced cucumber and tomato in a tahini dressing). Stuffed into soft and warm pita pockets, the combination might sound odd, but it’s a sweet, savory and hearty home run.

Ditto for Olive Tree’s Classic Shakshuka ($6.50). Served in a skillet, it’s a fantastic rendition of eggs poached in a rich and thick tomato sauce with peppers and onions and resembling Italian “cacciatore.” You can customize the dish — I recommend adding spicy, Moroccan-style merguez sausage.

I also recommend Olive Tree’s homemade Cheese Burekas ($3.50). They’re buttery and flaky savory pastries sprinkled with sesame seeds, filled with melted feta and Parmesan cheeses, and similar to delightful other baked goodies throughout the Mediterranean area. Like many items here, they’re familiar enough to be welcoming, different enough to be interesting.

Olive Tree Mediterranean Cafe

3185 Hilliard Rome Rd., Hilliard