Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Out with the veggies - The Olive Tree, Loughton, Essex







Having spent two gloriously long, hot summers and countless holidays on various Greek islands, I do count myself as a bit of an authority on good, Greek food. Ever since my love affair with Helenic food began I have been on the hunt for a good local taverna-style restaurant but have found several places sadly lacking in both substance and authenticity.

When a friend suggested a Mediterranean place that’s been open on nearby Loughton High St for 3 years, which I’d yet to sample, I agreed in blind hope and silently prayed it wouldn’t be yet another disappointment!

Checking out the menu online, I was impressed, with the dishes on offer – and even more excited to see one of the owners is called Manos – a true Greek name! If anything sent minor alarm bells off, it was the fact that it is billed as ‘Mediterranean’ rather than just Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, but I thought I will just have to go with an open mind and an empty stomach and see what happens.

So on Easter Saturday after a day in the gorgeous sunshine, I joined three close friends Larni, Jenni and Hayley for a pre-dinner cider in a Loughton watering hole and then we took a very civilised and leisurely stroll over to The Olive Tree.

The glass-fronted doors were wide open with a small terrace area where diners were enjoying their meal al fresco, and the weather was certainly on form for it. We were greeted by the incredibly friendly waiting staff, who walked us to our table and who continued to be helpful, attentive and generally charming throughout the meal – so far, so Greek.

The restaurant was incredibly busy, every table occupied and the atmosphere was good - groups of friends and family and couples alike seemed to be enjoying their Saturday evening. On arrival our noses were assaulted by an array of delicious smells and the hopes for a great meal were rising.
Two of the girls were driving and so opted for the virgin cocktails which both went down well, Larni went for a tropical Pina Colada which was lovely and reminiscent of many a holiday tipple. I chose a Jamaican Mule, which comprised of Morgan’s Spiced Rum, lime, bitters and ginger ale, and was absolutely gorgeous. Refreshing, sharp and with a strong alcohol bite, it was a perfect start to a divine evening.

Being out with the vegetarian crew (yes all three of them!) the meze was ruled out, but there were so many nice sounding appetisers, that this wasn’t a problem. Jenni opted for a simple selection of bread with olive tapenade, Larni for an old favourite – tzatsiki with pitta and Hayley and I shared two slightly heavier starters – Mushroom Crostini and Halloumi & Aubergine Stacks.

The first of our shared dishes comprised, as the name suggests, lightly grilled ciabatta topped with delicious garlic infused, sautéed wild mushrooms, , toasted pine nuts, rocket and shavings of salty parmesan. A simple dish, but executed brilliantly and not a crumb left once we’d got through it. My favourite though was the stacks of creamy, slightly melting halloumi, with herby soft layers of aubergine and slices of plump, juicy beef tomato. Everything was so, so fresh with a small smattering of oregano and I was in my element with it.

For a main Jenni – our most sensible, calorie-counting friend - went for a Greek Salad – which did look lovely, and again really fresh, bright and colourful. The presentation was great, and the dish did put us in mind of a Greek taverna.

Hayley had the Butternut Squash and Sage Tortellini which had a brandy-based creamy sauce. The dish was presented beautifully with an addition of Sweet Potato Crisps, which gave the dish a sweet, crunchy texture. Hayley enjoyed the meal and claimed it was ‘delicious’ and she made plenty of yummy noises. (Keen to point out here I was offered to try some but greed for my own enormous main, prevented me from fitting anything else in!)

Larni had a main of Gemistes, or tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice, herbs, pistachios and feta. It has to be said that Larni can be a very tough critic when it comes to food – and she fell in love with gemistes in Corfu on a girls holiday we went on a few years back. I was hoping these would match up to that standard but need not have worried, they were perfect, and the addition of the Greek cheese to the dish gave it a new, tasty dimension.

Finally I chose the Stuffed Pork Souvlaki, with great difficulty, as I was also tempted by the a few of the fish dishes as well as the stiffado, a Greek beef stew. I was on tenterhooks as to whether the souvlaki would live up to my high Greek expectations. This is a dish I’ve had more times than I care to remember, a great favourite, and so may seem like a boring choice, but as I mentioned, I’d yet to find anywhere outside of Greece where this was done well.

I can honestly say that this souvlaki actually surpassed any other I’ve ever had. The added twist of stuffing the rolled meat with Italian ham was absolutely genius and the flavour explosions were just fantastic. I felt reminiscent of happy times in Greece, but also loved the modern addition and felt the salty meat gave it an extra kick of deliciousness. As well as the usual Greek mixture of herbs a sharp lemony flavour penetrated the meat and helped keep it nice and juicy. Food heaven for me.

Both mine and Larni’s dishes were served with hand cut, chunky, herby, garlicy chips. They were heartily sized and lovely.

Mine was also served with pitta and tzatsiki, and I couldn’t resist (yes the greed rears it’s ugly head again) another side of tarramasalata – the delicious fish-roe dip. Unlike so many synthetic pre-packed versions that you can pick up in UK supermarkets, this didn’t have the marshmallow looking bright pink colour, and was just a simple white hue. It was, as with everything else I ordered, mouth-wateringly tasty.

Unfortunately for us, as all of the portions were so large and delicious, not one of us could even attempt to order dessert, which was a real shame as the menu looked great.

Overall the meal was absolutely a resounding success. Not one of us had any complaints in relation to the food, if we had any gripe at all, it would simply be to reduce the portion size slightly so we could fit in dessert next time! The restaurant was furnished well, and having a peek in the open-plan kitchen on the way to the toilet demonstrated a clean and tidy working environment. We paid around £30 a head for two courses and drinks which we were all very happy with. I can’t remember the last time I was met with such attentive and friendly staff and I would have no qualms about returning to and recommending the restaurant to friends and family. Also since visiting the website after our meal I notice the restaurant offers various musical entertainment so it is definitely worth checking out.

The Olive Tree is situated on Loughton High St, Essex and to book a table or find out more you can call Jackie or Manos on 020 8502 3332. You can find them online at www.theolivetreeloughton.co.uk

You can also read this review in the July edition of Scene Magazine or online here: http://issuu.com/scenemag/docs/sme_jul_2011_web

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