Midday at the Oasis

This past fall, when I took a job as an elementary school teacher, I didn't give any thought to what havoc this career move would wreak on that most sacred hour of the day: lunchtime. In the grade-school biz we get half an hour, which is often chiseled to twenty minutes by the time the kids are out of my classroom and squared away with their own meals.

To avoid wasting precious seconds of chow time by giving my colleagues impromptu spoken restaurant reviews, I learned early on not to bring to the cafeteria the leftovers from my culinary adventures. The sight of a doggy bag followed by the aroma emanating from the microwave was a never-fail invitation to Twenty Questions: What's in there? Where did I get it? How was it made?

But the truth is I'm often too busy to shop for the makings of lunch, let alone actually prepare it. (This could not possibly be due to any character flaw, such as, say, a lack of organizational skills.) So when my husband volunteered to pick up our favorite tofu meals -- grilled with sesame seeds, dressed with a tantalizing ginger-miso concoction, and stuffed with greens into a pita for him; steamed with vegetables, garlic, currants, and brown rice for me -- from Oasis Cafe one night for dinner, I asked him to include a house salad for my lunch the next day.

I knew from experience that the salad would draw comments of a noticeably envious nature, and not just because it was packed in a restaurant container. Oasis, located on the southeast corner of 41st Street and Alton Road, has been delighting residents for the past few months with plates that literally overflow with fresh, feel-good cuisine. Packaged to go (the restaurant offers pickup and delivery, as well as a catering service) or consumed on the breezy sponge-painted and tiled 50-seat premises, even a house salad has the artistry of a Japanese sushi boat.

Take, for instance, the weave of colors. The deep royalty of shredded beets gave way to the secondary purple of red onions. The scarlet of tomatoes introduced bright, sweet carrots. Beige chickpeas dotted the bleachy shag of shredded daikon and alfalfa sprouts, while pale cucumber slices, minus the seeds, hung like half moons on peaks of baby greens. One of the delectable homemade dressings -- carrot-influenced ginger-miso, tangy roasted garlic-and-tomato vinaigrette, citrusy lemon-herb, dijon balsamic vinaigrette; my personal favorite, creamy, garlicky house dressing infiltrated by minced herbs -- blanket the vegetarian bed.

House salads grew in scope two weeks ago, with the introduction of a new, more expansive, menu. Now, for a small additional fee, you can roof that house with marinated grilled tofu, tuna salad, rosemary-grilled chicken, or fresh grilled fish of the day. Or, for a main-course feast of greenery, you can choose from the list of other enticing salads, as I have, in particular the Mediterranean chef salad, which featured baby greens piled high with oven-roasted turkey, grilled eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, and a liberal sprinkle of chickpeas and feta cheese.

Oasis labels itself as Mediterranean cuisine with a juice bar; owners Simon Brenson and Sam Hackman founded and formerly owned Pineapples, the venerable health foodery just down the street. But the majority of influences stem from Morocco (couscous appears almost as often as brown rice) and the Middle East, as demonstrated by the mezze category (translation: "little bites"). At least six of these, served with fresh pita and seasoned, crunchy pita chips on the side, appeared on the Middle Eastern sampler. A smoothly superb hummus; nutty, runnier tahini; eggplant salad (roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and bell peppers tossed together); and Israeli chopped salad (cubed cucumber and bell peppers) were excellent. But the standout by far was two flattened falafel patties, just-crunchy on the outside and moist and fluffy inside, like good potato pancakes. Pink pickled turnips, kalamata olives, and pepperoncini garnished this multitude of salads.

You might consider bypassing the salads if you intend to order a sandwich for lunch or dinner: All nine offerings include a choice of salad (resembling the house version in both quantity and composition) or delicious, spicy fries coated with cumin and coriander and served with two kinds of pureed hot sauce. Even if you request the fiery fries, chances are your sandwich will be padded with a plethora of lettuce and other assorted garden goodies. Falafel, for instance, was fabulous with Israeli chopped salad, baby greens, and tahini in a toasted pita. A lamb gyro, replete with juicy, musky meat, Israeli chopped salad, and tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber sauce), was barely contained by the bread.

Though pita rules at Oasis, other starchy subjects are worthy of attention. A meatless "gardenburger" garnished with sauteed mushrooms and onions released aromatic juices into a crusty, flavorful focaccia roll. Mixed greens and sliced tomatoes and raw onion led us to request salad dressing, and a touch of that garlicky, herby house mixture really brought the burger to life. Grilled fish of the day, which I've had as a wonderful main course (sea bass banked with sauteed leaf spinach, garlic, and fresh tomato sauce), was also terrific in the guise of a red snapper sandwich on focaccia. Baby greens, roasted red peppers, and a sprightly lemon-caper aioli were perfect partners to the absolutely fresh fish.

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