I have Greek friends who think of their cuisine as entrenched and invariable from restaurant to restaurant. With few exceptions, they say, if you've seen one you've seen 'em all. But there are startling varieties. During a year's stay in Macedonian Greece, I excitedly sought out sheep's brains, partridges in lemon sauce, grilled mountain boar, and octopus in wine sauce; Greek food is more interesting and complex than is often assumed.
However, you'd never know it at Blue Olive, a new Greek place with a touch of Middle Eastern dishes (the owners are Persian-American). Its menu is a compendium of the expected, an anthology of national signature dishes: dolmathes, spanakopita, calamari, saganaki, Greek salad, lamb souvlaki and moussaka. Fortified by such Middle Eastern classics as baba ghanouj and lentil soup, the list has a regional range, but Blue Olive plays it exceedingly safe.
Just as one can predict the Temple at Paestum from having seen the Parthenon, you can predict the way dishes look at Blue Olive. Every main course comes garnished with the same medley of accompaniments: rice, roast potatoes, Greek salads, tzatziki. (Why these items are thought to do the exact same service no matter what they accompany is beyond me.) And it's not the time of year for a Greek salad, which cries out for midsummer tomatoes and juicy sweet cukes.
Luckily, the restaurant does some things quite nicely. The appetizer of pan-fried goat cheese ($8), golden brown and sizzling in its pan, lusciously melts and oozes, tarted up with bracingly fresh lemon. The baba ghanouj ($5) is smoky and spicy, a treat on the warm, plump pita bread. Foul mudamas ($6)—fava beans baked and mashed with garlic—is the Egyptian national dish and is an ambrosial, heady concoction. The tired squid ($8) could be crispier, and the stuffed vine leaves ($8) are a bit too mushy, though the delicate spinach puffs ($6) are flaky and arrive piping hot.
I liked the enormous hunk of roast lamb shoulder ($18): tender on the bone, nicely fatty, richly succulent and enough for a battalion. The game hen ($15)—another staple—is also perfectly cooked, spurting juicy flavor. The lamb souvlaki ($15) is properly herbed, but on the dry side. The salmon steak ($15), on the other hand, seems utterly banal, and since it's alien to Grecian waters, it makes little sense. Why not do more authentic grilled sardines or swordfish?
One nice touch of playfulness: There's cardamom-perfumed baklava ($2.50) laced with chocolate, an ingredient not generally found in Greek desserts but one that blends well with the baklava's pistachios.
The main room is somewhat cold and unadorned, but in warm weather Blue Olive possesses one of the handsomest restaurant gardens in the city (it's slated to reopen in the next two weeks). It's not Mykonos, but you'll be happy as an Aegean clam near the fountain. Meanwhile, there's a charming little bar, where you might take a post-meal glass of Metaxa and dream of the culinary gods on Mount Olympus.
Blue Olive, 4627 NE Fremont St., 528-2822. Dinner 5-10 pm Monday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.