Turkish cuisine is a fusion of foods from Central Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the countries around the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It shares some common recipes with the kitchens of Greece and several other neighbors—including Iran, Iraq and Syria—but goes further in embracing and refining cuisines with ancient roots in Persia and parts of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish owners of Oliva restaurant on Madison’s far west side have billed their menu as Italian and Mediterranean since establishing it in 2009—probably recognizing many American diners are more familiar with those labels.
But I have long considered Turkish food a personal favorite, having spent months in the Mediterranean region years ago. That’s why it seemed odd I hadn’t known of Oliva until I recently discovering it by accident.
A group of friends and I gathered there last week and were impressed with the restaurant’s food and ambience. Located in an upscale shopping plaza on High Point Road, it is a large, beautifully decorated restaurant with booths, tables and chairs, and big windows that allow lots of natural light in the dining room.
Even better, as our server pointed out, “everything here is made from scratch.”
That’s obvious in the restaurant’s appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Our meal began with what the restaurant billed as complementary Turkish bread with olive oil and cracked pepper, but the crispy white bread didn’t strike me as particularly Turkish. In fact, no one in our party of five cared for it.
But that attitude changed with the arrival of a trio of appetizers.
The kitchen’s wonderful stuffed grape leaves (we got five for $6.99) were filled with bits of rice, currants and pine nuts, with hints of onion, dill and mint. Another starter, cigar borek (also $6.99), featured a phyllo-dough wrap with spinach, cheese and parsley.
A savory falafel plate ($5.99) came with tahini sauce drizzled over chickpea patties that were a blend of flavors: parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander.
You might have noticed Turkish recipes commonly use lots of vegetables in appetizers, and that’s true for main courses as well.
An aromatic veggie stew ($13.99) hit all the right flavor notes and came with a serving of rice pilaf. It used a tomato-based sauce and included potatoes, bell peppers, green beans, onions and garlic for a flavorful mix, with parsley and paprika for seasoning.
A dish called The Imam Fainted ($14.99) featured sautéed eggplant with long-simmered onion, tomatoes, garlic, green peppers and pine nuts. It came with a mound of jasmine rice that clearly was no afterthought.
Some Italian influences are represented on the menu and appeared in a plate of chicken Marsala ($15.99), which used a Sicilian wine (from Marsala) and chicken stock along with porcini mushrooms and tagliatelle pasta to create an unbeatable flavor combination.
A plate of lamb shish ($16.99) featured marinated cubes of mildly spiced meat served with tahini sauce, julienned vegetables and rice. The lamb cubes included hints of smoked paprika, garlic and cumin, and, while tasty, they were a bit too long on the grill.
It was hard to fault a plate of Mediterranean shrimp ($16.99), which came almost as a stew. It featured the same tomato-based sauce we saw in other recipes (veggie stew) and included lots of plump shrimp with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and lemon.
Oliva offers a full list of beverages, including wine, beer and hard liquor, as well as the desserts people associate with Mediterranean cuisine such as rice pudding, baklava and tiramisu.
This kitchen’s pudding ($4.49) was terrific, featuring less rice and more flavor, while its tiramisu ($5.49) was rich, flavorful and clearly homemade—pretty much out of this world.
We like everything about Oliva. It’s a beautiful dining room with food to match, and although our server couldn’t immediately answer all of our questions, she took the time to get answers and was always friendly and professional.
This is a destination for fine food in an elegant setting, but without the high prices you’re likely to encounter downtown.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.