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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Fair
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Oliva is a new bright spot in west-side dining
Simply Turkish
First off, order Turkish tea, a mild and sweet brew that the Turks drink all day long, served properly in a small glass flask.
Credit:Adam Powell

When the nomadic, horse-riding Seljuq Turks migrated from their ancestral homeland of Central Asia and crossed the Volga into the Black Sea steppes circa 1300 A.D., they brought a highly distinctive philosophy towards food with them: In austerity is great beauty. The Turks have long employed a deep restraint in their arts, a design esthetic that cuts through the opulence of Western Europe like a scythe through a hunk of warm ökelek.

This tenacious adherence to purity of form favored by the immigrants to modern-day Turkey is manifested in nearly everything generated by this culture, from worry beads to clothing and, of course, cuisine.

The food the Turks export to the world is, rather amazingly, still tied directly to their lifestyle of hundreds of years ago. Bread was cooked over a fire on hot stones - no ovens. The primary meat is lamb: Milk-fed sheep traveled with the nomadic Turks and provided cheese and yogurt along with meat, seasoned to add flavor and extend lifespan. It's a challenging taste milieu to penetrate compared to the drenched colors and saturated flavors of Greece, Italy and France, but the brand-new Oliva makes it easy by presenting more familiar Mediterranean fare alongside the real centerpiece of the dinner menu, Turkish food.

Chefs Mehmet Dayi and Nurettin Ramazanoglu hail from the Dardanelles (anakkale). If you're here for dinner, here's how to follow the Turk protocol. First off, order Turkish tea, a mild and sweet brew that the Turks drink all day long, served properly in a small glass flask on a beautifully decorated saucer of the sort available in Istanbul's Kapali Carsi.

Your meal proper should begin with a orba (soup); try the thicker-than-usual mercimek, with red lentils, onion, and spices. This is a truly sublime concoction, and the homemade bread is wonderful dipped in the soup (or, for that matter, into the herb-infused oil placed on each table, plated).

Appetizers are next. Kisir is a tabuli-like cracked wheat, tomato, cucumber, olive oil, parsley and lemon mixture. As kisir is a healthful dish, it's no sin to gobble it all down, and you'll want to.

The hummus is subtle and opens up like a wine. A drizzle of lemon seems missing at first, but gradually the chickpea and sesame mash seems to need nothing but the homemade Turkish pita bread. This is an austere hummus, and we wanted more when it was gone.

Entrees: Don't miss the lamb kebab; it's smoky, subtle and suffused with earthy herbal undertones. The ancient heritage of this foodstuff is meat, speared and roasted over an open fire pit. At Oliva the meat is served across rice - no sauces or butters or cheeses interfere with the showcase of adroitly seasoned meat.

Nightly specials are available. Ours was a baked baby eggplant, stuffed with tomatoes, onions, garlic, roasted red bell peppers and pine nuts; a savory and dense vegetarian take on Karniyarik.

The lunch menu is a more casual affair and affords the chance to nosh on items from around the Mediterranean perimeter. (Oliva's address, in a mini-mall, means it probably wouldn't survive by offering exclusively Turkish food.) The kitchen rises to the challenge. This version of the menu is also superb, though it's a shame the sublime lamb kebab isn't available during the day. You can order stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush and chaman (a kind of pepper paste with olive oil, walnuts and garlic).

Since we're closer to New York than Ankara, it seems a bit silly to pass up authentic Turkish cuisine in favor of a pizza, but the good news is that the pizza rocks, too. A slice of cheese can't compete with Brooklyn's finest but is surprisingly awesome, with flaky crust, just the right shake of seasonings and not too much cheese.

Save room for dessert. Baklava, densely layered sheets of phyllo dough, honey and nuts, is exquisite here, and doesn't take any shortcuts - it's lovingly rendered one flaky layer at a time.

There is some classic Turkish weirdness going on: The interior of the restaurant is for the most part meticulously decorated, but there are plastic sheets on the tables. It's really just another testament to the authenticity of the joint. Oliva is a boon to the west side. Make a reservation now.

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