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Bleu Olive: from braised lamb to baklava



While the name alludes to an atmosphere more azure than taupe, Bleu Olive Mediterranean Bistro has stripped all remnants of festive Greek blue from its former identity, Papas Grille. Bleu Olive has the same owners, but they have renovated the space into a mood that's more mellow and upscale.

The menu presents a colorful cache of Mediterranean fare, with the chef's repertoire rooted in Greece and accented by Italian, Spanish, Turkish and French culinary influences. While the variety can be overwhelming, it threads together fundamental ingredients for a mass appeal. In both its vibe and menu, Bleu Olive can easily transition from family-style (where everyone can find something to love) to romantic and casual enough for a first date (playing it safe for both adventurous and picky eaters).

The attentive and appreciative dinner service on my first visit lent itself to a very open question-and-answer session with the waiter. A friend wanted to know how thin the fries were, and he immediately offered that she make the call, as they're cut to order. We had trouble settling on our entrées, and he helped us navigate the menu with an experienced finesse and chatter that wasn't overbearing or awkward.

If it's cooked right, char-grilled octopus can have me buckling at the knees. Bleu Olive's appetizer version ($9.90) is a lightly charred tentacle plated in slices. Sitting on a smooth white bean ragu with softly roasted fennel bulb and a drizzle of balsamic glaze, it's a fancy version of what you'd find at a bar by the Aegean Sea. The meat maintained just the right texture, not gummy or chewy. The cremini mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and cheese ($7.50) gave us a pleasant start.

The lamb burger ($13.50) came out of the kitchen poised and plump, tucked into a round, golden bun. The meat itself smelled fragrant with fresh herbs. Its olive yogurt sauce could have been a soothing accompaniment, though my friend felt it was a little heavy-handed. Her fries came out as crisp and thin as she'd hoped.

I dove into my braised pork cheek entrée ($17.50) with a spoon, testing the waiter's insistence that I wouldn't need a fork. (The menu also claims it'll melt in your mouth.) Adding to its tender appeal is a sweet, aromatic taste of what could be akin to fresh thyme, rounding out the strong, meaty flavor in its husky portion. Bok choy atop risotto could benefit from some tweaking. The greens' tendency to retain moisture ran through the creamy risotto, making it watery.

Oddly enough, pork belly (with a marinade making good use of soy) appears frequently on the Mediterranean menu. I took a chance with the strangely labeled mac 'n' cheese a la Grecque ($13.90 at dinner, $10.50 at lunch) and found my favorite indulgence. The dish features roasted pork belly melted into a combination of gruyere and asiago cheeses in a mound of rigatoni pasta. The meal is baked in a single-portion soup tureen, the kind with a handle, and served hot. A decadent pour of white wine reduction, though not listed on the menu, gives the dish a comfort that has no comparison. Half of it made it home as a rich leftover meal the following chilly morning.

Other pasta dishes, such as the Tourkolimano ($17.50), pair best with seafood. The shrimp in my dish came straight from the Carolina coast and were swimming in a bowl of orzo pasta, coupled with the bright flavors of fresh baby spinach, lots of lemon and the robust saltiness of olives and capers.

The mousaka ($15.90) twists a classic, home-style Greek dish into a gourmet entrée. Rather than ground beef or lamb, the layer of meat is composed of braised chunks of lamb flavored with comforting cinnamon. Stacks of potato, eggplant and zucchini provide a base, topped with a very thin layer of foaming béchamel cream tinged with nutmeg.

A very extensive wine list spans the Mediterranean. Worthy of note is the red Agiorgitiko, Greece's most popular export. A basic table wine, it's not too dry and pairs well with almost anything.

Although the beginning of the meal may feel too soon to consider dessert, it's best to ask for the baklava early (it is baked to order). Expect to wait. Bleu Olive's modern rendition of this classic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern delight dazzles the palate with welcomed surprises: plump golden olives, almonds and walnuts.

If you stop by on a midmorning on the weekend, you'll find a very innovative brunch. Coffee drinks spiked with Frangelico and other sweet treats lead into a menu replete with filling midday meals. The eggs benedict Florentine shines. Rather than chewy, hard-to-slice English muffins, this benedict is served over fluffy brioche rolls. The braised spinach, reminiscent of classic spanakopita filling, is mixed with dill and feta cheese; it's both verdant and earthy. The hollandaise warms my big, fat, Greek heart with a heavy dose of lemon. Even the home fries carry over the lemony flavor: Dusted with fresh chopped oregano, they are like the oven-roasted potatoes your yiayia would make.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mediterranean cruise."

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