Sunday, December 19, 2010

Foodgasm - Olive Tree in Anaheim

I’ve been a huge fan of middle eastern food since living in France where it was readily available, along with almost every other cuisine, including my favorite, Moroccan. Finding good Middle Eastern food is harder here in the states, but with the grown of local Islamic communities, it’s is becoming much easier.

A friend recently recommended the Olive Tree restaurant in the Little Arabia section of Anaheim, California. I took my wife and mother in for a visit on a rainy Friday night a few days ago. There were no other dinners in the restaurant besides a few men hanging around for the end of the Laker game. Things looked worrisome from the outside. I could tell my mother was questioning my sanity. Our misconceptions vanished as we walked past the outdoor hookah lounge to enter the restaurant. We were greeted like family. I was not prepared for the warmth of our reception. We met the waiters, host and the owner, Abu Ahmad, in the first five minutes of our visit. They offered help with the menu and guided us toward food that they though might make our meal memorable. The owner told us of his restaurants history and of its recent accomplishments. He was proud of his establishment and it showed in his enthusiasm for the fresh ingredients, daily specials, and the ample menu.

The Olive Tree was picked as one of the Best of the Best restaurants in Orange County by the OC Weekly and named as the best place to sacrifice a lamb.

Give Abu Ahmad, owner of the very popular eatery, three days' notice and $300, and he'll have chef Um Alaa turn out an entire 17- to 20-pound lamb, rubbed with oil and spices and roasted in a special oven built just for the purpose. The meat comes out burnished brown on the outside and impossibly moist on the inside. The lamb is stuffed with rice containing 17 spices, almonds and currants, then laid on a veritable mountain of more rice.

The reason you eat at Olive Tree is the specials. The owner prides himself on offering hard to find regional and national dishes. Skip the menu and live a little, go with the specials. I was fortunate enough to try a Jordanian dish called mansaf. The LA Times describes it best.

Jordanian mansaf is more distinct. Lamb shanks and ribs are slow-cooked in jameed — a brick of sun-dried sheep's milk yogurt rehydrated with a few splashes of water — and served over rice. The broth is amplified to the outer limits of tanginess by the jameed's acidic, buttermilk-like bite.

This was hands down the best lamb I have ever eaten. It’s even better than my benchmark Lamb shank from Frenchy’s Bistros. My wife had a stuffed whole chicken (a Syrian dish I think) that was delicious even as leftovers. While my mother stayed with the safer Shish Kabob from the menu. We also enjoyed the vegetarian platter as an appetizer. There were only three of us, we had enough food for 6 or even 7 people.

I was unprepared for the experience. I did not bring my camera. My iPhone photos do not do the food justice, and I did not bring along anything to write with. I came because my best friend Al recommended the place as, “my kind of restaurant.” I can tell you that it felt like eating a home cooked meal surrounded by your family and friends. The food was so decadently delicious that I felt guilty eating it. I was so stuffed that it was like eating Thanksgiving dinner all over again. There was no thought of desert. I don’t even know if they offer it.

My meal cost $85 with a very generous tip. I plan to go back for more. A true testament to my love for this place is that I plan to go back with my foodie friend and long time eating ally Richard, who lives in Waco and is food challenged. We’ve eaten some fine meals together, I cannot wait to share this place with him.

Try the Olive Tree. Have your own foodgasm.

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