Oasis broadens the palette of Mediterranean flavors

Just a few years ago, famous Greek dishes such as spanakopita, saganaki and falafel appeared on the menus of only a choice few Indianapolis restaurants. Middle Eastern dishes such as kibby, a beef and cracked wheat patty, and fatoosh, a traditional Lebanese salad with toasted pita, showed up on local tables only if you had a great cookbook or a Lebanese friend. Now that the palette of world cuisines has widened substantially in Indianapolis, local diners are being fed a much broader sense of what Middle Eastern cuisine can be. Jordanian-owned Oasis Restaurant is just the latest in a host of restaurants that have made the great dishes of the near East not only exotic specialties but household terms.

A generous coat of harvest gold paint makes the restaurant’s interior glow, and the terrazzo floor lends a rustic, old world appeal. Booths upholstered with bright blues, reds and greens seem more indicative of Spanish or Latin American décor but make for a festive atmosphere. True to the restaurant’s name, a makeshift “oasis” beckons diners at the front with gurgling pottery fountains and unconvincing plastic palm trees. This is still Indiana, after all.

The menu at Oasis seeks to be a catch-all of Mediterranean cuisines with everything from spaghetti and shrimp to gyros and kebabs. Starters provided a mixed bag of highlights and achingly subtle flavors. A small Oasis Plate ($4.95) brought together four of the most familiar appetizers. Tabouli glistened bright green with parsley and mint; it sang on the tongue. Two falafel patties were light, crisp and utterly greaseless. Homous and baba ghannooj seemed heavier on tahini than at most Greek restaurants, and while these spreads lacked the usual garlicky after-burn, they were welcome on warm pita. A complimentary terrine of briny olives and pungent pickled turnip more than made up in flavor and texture.

Soups and salads were also understated. The lentil soup ($1.95) was a murky concoction, simultaneously a thin broth and a thick stew, but once our spoons had stirred the brew a bit, the earthy flavors began to mingle and express themselves. Fatoosh ($2.95) offered the crunch of toasted pita with the tang of lemon over tomatoes and cucumbers. And feather-light triangle pockets of spanakopita ($1.50 each) came filled with a slightly loose cheese, reminiscent of cottage cheese, that didn’t quite water down the other sharper cheeses inside.

For our entrées, we went for the least typical offerings, starting with the lamb hosé ($7.95), a dish whose name seemed more south of the border than east of the Red Sea. Strangely and deliciously, this dish resembled beef stroganoff made with lamb. Plentiful chunks of tender lamb peeked through a delicate mushroom cream sauce with subtle undertones of wine and garlic. A sprinkling of buttery toasted pine nuts added a nice crunch. Dolmathes ($7.95), grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground beef, came perfectly rolled and redolent of sweet allspice, that one-time treasure of trade routes now almost forgotten in American cuisine. Typically served in Greek restaurants with a thick lemony egg sauce, these came with a side of cucumber sauce, a thin, milky yogurt sauce with chunks of cucumber that seemed to clash with both the texture and the flavor of the rolls. Fortunately, the grape leaves were good enough unadorned.

Desserts proved a bit more of a desert than an oasis. Of two offerings, only baklava ($1.75) was available late on a weeknight. And while a thick layer of chewy ground nuts and a delicate sugar syrup provided a nice sweetness, the phyllo dough was tough, struggling against our forks. We were left to ponder whether knafe ($3.50), a Lebanese cheese pastry, might have offered a better conclusion.

Given that Indy now boasts several truly superior Greek restaurants and more Italian restaurants than one could visit in a year’s time, it’s a shame that Oasis feels the need to pad its menu with all-too-familiar pastas such as fettuccine Alfredo and the almost xenophobic American standards of chicken sandwiches and hamburgers (with fries, of course). But with a good selection of truly Middle Eastern dishes, most at around $7.95, it’s entirely possible to navigate the menu at Oasis like a map to a hidden treasure and end up at an affordable, tasty and quite original meal.

Oasis Restaurant

5166 N. College Ave. 283-0000

Monday-Saturday, 11-10 Sunday, noon-8  Food: 3 stars

Atmosphere : 2 1/2 stars

Service : 3 stars