Timur Leno is a man of ambition. The Turkish-born owner of Olive You, not content with planning a mere deli (albeit one that stocks obscure imported delights), decided his pan-Mediterranean joint on Greenwood Avenue would also be an eat-in/take-out bistro. And an espresso and pastry stand, a wine shop (with twice-monthly wine tastings), a cooking school (also twice a month), a music club (on Thursday and Friday nights), and an art gallery.
At first glance, in fact, the least ambitious aspect of the place seems to be the deli menu, which is built around pita-based sandwiches and panini, meat or veggie kabobs with rice, and a rotating series of specials from a hot case. But that impression will last only until your first taste of the food, which is prepared fresh with expert restraint.
I kept stealing bites of my husband's Biella panino ($8.95), trying to figure out whether it was the perfectly grilled zucchini, the intensely smoky eggplant, or the bright-green basil spread that made it so good. My dinner was the Crunchy Creta Paximadi ($6.85), a toasted round of pita bread topped with a confetti of sheep's milk feta, sour Cretan green olives, oregano, and chopped tomatoes. The dish was nourishing and comforting, and as I munched I imagined a mama in some little Greek village making this treat for her son as an after-school snack.
The shoestring French fries that rounded out our plates had a delicate potato flavor, especially when piping hot; it seemed a crime to dip them in ketchup. (If French fries that taste like potatoes sound unimpressive, try the ones at Olive You: You may be surprised, as I was, to realize that most fries don't taste like spuds at all.) Later, a conversation with Leno revealed how he pulls off such feats. Each day, he makes the rounds of several small, local markets, picking out whatever vegetables look freshest and most appealing; he tweaks the menu to accommodate what he finds.
Lots of fresh vegetables—roasted, marinated, or stuffed—also find their way into the deli case that takes up the front half of the store. These are complemented by a host of items from Italy, Spain, France, and Greece—sun-dried tomatoes, seafood such as anchovies, octopus, and stuffed squid, and a whole phalanx of olives. The overall effect is beautiful in its variety, and the unfamiliar foods are fascinating. The only dish I've tried that really disappointed me was an imported seafood salad ($15.99/lb.) that seemed to have suffered from its long journey—the several varieties of marine life were all identically rubbery and far too strongly fishy for my taste.
By contrast, all of the house-made items I've tasted have been outstanding: giant Greek beans in a tomato and dill sauce ($7.99/lb.), a feta spread with hot peppers ($6.99/lb.), extra-garlicky hummus ($6.99/lb.). If you're building a takeout meal from the deli case, be warned: The cost of all those tasty morsels can add up fast. Fortunately, what appears to be a mandatory sampling policy is strictly enforced by the friendly staff (on one visit, I was even given samples of goodies I'd already chosen to purchase).
One of the friends who turned me on to Olive You commented that it's the first place on Greenwood Avenue to spill outside and create the beginnings of a sidewalk culture. My friend is right—the roll-up front window opens the whole place to the street on pleasant days, and the long deli case draws the eye in to the cheery, blue-and-white space. A couple of sidewalk tables are excellent for people watching, and would be a nice place to stop for a glass of wine and a meze plate or two. Try the mucver ($7.95)—light, pillowy fritters made from feta and shredded zucchini, lively with fresh mint. And chalk up another one for Leno's boundless ambition: he doesn't just want to run a restaurant, it seems, he wants to knit a whole neighborhood more tightly together.
Olive You, 8516 Greenwood Ave. N., 206-706-4121, GREENWOOD. 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs.; 10 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.