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.
Fillet of Atlantic salmon, separated into chunks, was mixed with cavatappi (corkscrew pasta) and chunks of tomatoes. This fish is paler than the Pacific species, and has a stronger flavor, which I found pleasing but which some might find a little too powerful for such a delicate accompaniment. A special smoked salmon appetizer (gleaned from the blackboard that supplements the menu) was less forwardly fishy. Draped over julienned squash, zucchini, and carrots, the lacy smoked fish, sliced like lox, was dressed with an herbal lemon vinaigrette. Marvelous.
Oasis offers eight pasta dishes, including gnocchi, which can be prepared with a basil pesto or a marinara sauce. We ordered the latter and delighted in the basil-striped chunky tomatoes but were a little disappointed in the mushy consistency of the gnocchi. Fortunately the bland, marble-size dumplings received the sauce well despite their too-soft texture. Penne turkey muergez was a better bet. Cubes of the muergez (like seasoned meat loaf) were mixed with the tubular noodles, fresh tomatoes, tiny currants, and pine nuts. The result was both sweet and nutty, with the turkey and pasta adding appetite-satisfying depth.
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Oasis's chef Luigi Enriquez, who merged his catering business with the restaurant, isn't afraid to take some chances in order to discover good combinations. These chances typically appear as blackboard items, then graduate to the regular menu if they find favor. One such phenomenon was a turkey chop: a cross-section of turkey breast, bone included, fashioned to look like an inch-thick veal chop. I'd been told this was a great treat, poor-relation turkey meat performing like beef or veal, which is wealthier in flavor and texture but also in fat grams. Sadly, not so. This turkey chop was the driest white meat I've ever tasted, stringy and mealy, exceeding my mother's worst Thanksgiving disaster (a wonderful cook, she always inexplicably fails with her turkeys). A too-sweet brown sauce flecked with mushrooms and tomatoes imparted a currylike flavor but couldn't do much for the meat. Sections of crisp roasted potatoes were excellent as a side dish, though the sauteed julienne of squash, zucchini, and carrots looked especially uninventive in light of the main course.
We were satisfied by the sticky-sweet baklava and the kind of golden rum cake, sticky from crystallizing liquor, that always gives me a sugar high. (For those twelve-steppers inclined to drink their desserts, banana-strawberry smoothies might just be ideal.) And while I did wind up sharing my lunch with a fellow teacher the day I brought Oasis's house salad to school, I know for sure I wouldn't be as generous with that rum cake.
976 41st St, Miami Beach; 674-7676. Open Sunday -- Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.
Middle Eastern sampler
Grilled fish sandwich
Penne turkey muergez