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Cheap Eats

Dates & Olives in Brighton offers build-your-own-meal options

Beef pita pocket with raw vegetables and yogurt-mint sauce.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance
Renita Mendonca at Dates & Olives.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Dates & Olives is in a lively block in Brighton beside the large coffee shop Fuel and the old-fashioned breakfast-all-day Moogy’s. The new spot, open for two months, is owned by Mumbai native Renita Mendonca, a chef who has worked in multiple cuisines.

She decided on Mediterranean food because she wanted something healthy. “Mediterranean food is a way of life,” she says, “not a diet.’’

Hummus ($3.50) is on this menu, along with baba ghanouj ($4), falafel ($3.50), the creamy yogurt-like labneh ($3.50), and muhamara ($4), the roasted red pepper and walnut dip with pomegranate. Mendonca’s version of baba ghanouj is a coarsely chopped dish that has never been in a food processor. “That’s how it used to be made,” she says.

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In the style that’s so popular right now, on the menu, you build your own meal with a rice bowl, salad bowl, or pita pocket. The pita isn’t anything you’ve seen before. These are small, dark, thick rounds, made in Israel, with lots of flavor. Chicken ($8) is nicely flavored with warm Moroccan spices; tender morsels of beef ($8.50) have Turkish spices; falafel ($7.50) is flavorful but, though deep-fried, isn’t particularly crisp and seems baked.

Stack those falafel balls on a pita round with thick and smooth hummus (you can add up to four toppings or sauces), red cabbage slaw, and yogurt-mint sauce and you’ll have a very satisfying meal. Grilled vegetables ($8) is a nice chopped melange that needs toppings to give it spark, like pickled turnips and a very good, hot, bright green zhoug sauce, a Yemenite specialty made with flat-leaf parsley, garlic, olive oil, and serrano chiles.

A nice way to begin the meal is with a fattoush salad ($4), with toasted pita, though the bread pieces should be crisper.

Mendonca came to this country to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. She has worked at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, at the fancy Grand Hyatt Muscat in Oman, and at the celebrated French Laundry restaurant. She also runs an Indian vegetarian catering service, Seasoned and Spiced. In 2010, after a two-year vetting process, she appeared on “Chopped” on the Food Network, and finished the entree round but didn’t make it to dessert. “The actual challenge was terrific,” says Mendonca, “and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

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Some dishes at Dates & Olives aren’t quite right. Yufka chips ($1.50) turn out to be pita chips that aren’t baked long enough; millet tabbouleh ($4), with plenty of parsley, tomatoes, mint, and lemon, is gummy; date cake with labneh frosting ($4), made with exquisite Medjool dates, has a fine flavor but dry crumb; rice pudding ($4) with cinnamon, vanilla, dates, cranberries, and rose water, is so thin with milk it doesn’t seem like pudding.

On weekends, Mendonca’s husband, Rattan Menzies, is on hand, and if you peek into the corner, you might catch a glimpse of son Liam, 5. This gracious family is taking great care to make very healthy food with the best ingredients. Sometimes it suffers what I call the “Whole Foods syndrome”: trying to appeal to a clientele with so many demands that dishes are seasoned too cautiously. Mendonca understands seasoning. She should be less timid.

DATES & OLIVES

160 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton, 617-515-0010, datesandolives.com. All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible.

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Prices Appetizers and salads $1.50-$4. Entrees $7.50-$8.50. Desserts $4-$6.

Hours Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Liquor None

What to order Chicken rice bowl, beef pocket, muhamara, hummus, fattoush.

Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com . Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.