Cafe Ole
[from November 1998 issue]

It's tempting to describe Cafe Ole on upper Wisconsin as a slightly funky drop-in eatery with a yuppie air of nonchalance and Mediterranean spirit. Actually, calling Cafe Ole a restaurant is stretching the point somewhat, since meals are really snacks rather in the spirit of a tapas bar, and slaking hunger could mean ordering half a dozen little plates, or maybe a sandwich or two, a soup and salad, and a tidbit for dessert.

We dithered about, trying to get a handle on the place: First of all, you must grab a table and a menu, then pour over the menu selections, trying to discern whether marinated goat cheese and calamares a la plancha constitute a snack, an hors d'oeuvre, or a mini-meal. It's best to measure what your neighbors are eating, that way you will realize ahead of time that a hot mezze order of lamb tangine, or Moroccan lamb stew, adds up to about three-quarters of a cup of victuals.

The trick is deciding which way you want to go: After 4 p.m., that means your choices extend from the hot and cold mezzes--little bits of this and that--soups and salads, panini sandwiches, roll ups, and the somewhat decadent desserts. Once you've totaled up your take, then you must place and pay for your order. The rest is up to them. We were greedy, adding dish after dish to the order: the goat cheese, the calamares, the Toscana Salata (an orzo salad with mortadella), the Casablanca (cured salmon with Moroccan spices), the lamb stew, Tramezzini Milano (grilled pita stuffed with goat cheese), and Lebanese Celebration (chicken marinated in wild thyme). Seven dishes! yet in the end not much more than one might nibble on at a Washington cocktail party.

If the menu seems constructed on half measures, the kitchen sees to it that the food comes out at full flavor--although not every dish meets expectations. Take the Tramezzini Milano, for example, an attempt to pass off thin wedges of over-crisped pita sandwiched around a thin spread of goat cheese as a pizza of sorts--insubstantial at best. Even the orzo salad with its promise of mortadella, artichokes, and calamata olives dressed with a lemony aioli lacked intrigue.

Beyond these two, however, the kitchen staff met the challenge and set out some outstanding tastes, and of these the calamare merits several gold stars. Accented with garlic and spices, the tender shredded squid pairs well with the lamb stew, the other best of the evening. The lamb really should be available in entree-sized portions: served with rice or orzo, this would more than justify return visits to Cafe Ole. The marinated goat cheese melts with its salty-pungent flavors and the chicken in wild thyme spreads well on the toasted panini wedges that come with your meal. But the real treats come as desserts. Chocolate makes its mark, for the pastry chef has whipped up a chocolate mousse with hazelnuts, a pistachio chocolate brownie, and something called Chocolate Purse, which is really a chocolate-within-chocolate treat. Eclairs (this too dry), Napoleons, fruit tarts, tiramisu, strawberry kabobs dipped in chocolate, and baklava round out the dessert choices. You could also end on a wet note with fresh juice, a flavored coffee, or one of their smoothie-type teas that taste more like an ice cream soda than tea.

You could also, of course, forego all this and simply sit at the bar to sip wine and munch on cheese and olives: But sidestepping the choices takes fun out of the event, and besides, why would anyone want to pass up the calamares and lamb? And, oh yes, they serve breakfast--from croissants to a grilled pita stuffed with chorizo sausage and eggs.

Cafe Ole, 4000 Wisconsin Ave. 202-244-1330. Hours: Mon.-Thu., 7am-11pm; Fri., 7am-1am; Sat., 8am-1am; Sun., 8am-10pm. Price range: Mezzes, $2.25-$4.25. Major credit cards accepted.

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