The Mediterranean diet
You can see the painted palm trees from I-25 and Osuna, where Barry’s Oasis lives up to its name as a reprieve from the blistering concrete just outside the door. Inside, the high-ceilinged dining room is decorated like a beachy patio. There are faux balconies crowded with potted plants. Umbrellas shade tables and hang overhead, diffusing sunshine from skylights set into the seagull-adorned ceiling.
This desert oasis theme could clash with classical music and the Euro-centric Mediterranean focus of the menu—but it doesn't. While the food pays sincere homage to Old World cooking traditions, boss Barry Schuster reserves the right to do things in his own idiosyncratic way. If his Oasis is a refuge from the rumble and heat outside, it's also an escape from reality. A visit to Oasis can feel like a table in the twilight zone.
The restaurant cliché about the customer being right is only half true at Barry's, judging by the demeanor of Richard Lopez, the waiter. Like a butler to a demanding estate, Richard works to find common ground between hungry customers and the whims of the chef/owner.
The menu's pages are a tour of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Israel and Lebanon. It's also full of anecdotes about Barry's cooking and dining philosophies (he studied at Le Cordon Bleu in France) and other notable moments—like the time Gourmet magazine asked for his seafood crepe recipe.
Hands on hips, with a slightly annoyed expression, Barry had the look of a man who takes his restaurant seriously and suffers fools grumpily.
Top on my list: the paella. Served in a hot skillet—“paella” literally means a shallow frying pan—the Valencian dish contained a diversity of salt-water proteins, a big piece of chicken, melted tomatoes, and plentiful zucchini and carrot slices, all crowding grains of al dente, saffron-yellow rice. If all the Mediterranean basin were a savory soup, this paella would be the goodies at the bottom of the pot. Also from Spain, pescados con almendras featured a nice piece of fish in a tangy, buttery sauce with almond fragments.
A Greek chicken soup with rice, egg and plenty of lemon was thin, flavorful and spicy with black pepper. Crab-stuffed mushroom caps were served piping hot in a scallop shell. A Mediterranean sampler platter featured dolmas, feta, spanakopita, crispy falafel and garlicky hummus. It was accompanied by grilled "Olympic bread," the house name for a pocketless pita. The warm flatbread was basted in gyro juice—full of garlic, spices and lamb fat—and disappeared quickly from our table.
Those seafood crepes that captured Gourmet's attention were about as decadent as it gets with your pants on. Two rolled crepes were stuffed with a dense filling of clam, shrimp and crab and smothered in melted cheese. The boundaries between cheese, crepe and filling were blurred in richness.
Impishly polite, Richard proved himself as one of the finest waiters in town. He clearly enjoyed interacting with customers and wasn’t above watching us eat to be sure we were happy. Even Barry made an appearance in the dining room. Hands on hips, with a slightly annoyed expression, he had the look of a man who takes his restaurant seriously and suffers fools grumpily.
Barry's dour front was hard to believe, however, when dessert arrived. A chocolate pie had an intense chocolate flavor to match its density, accented by a cookie crust and whipped cream. The bread pudding was even more impressive. Served warm under a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream, the pudding was filled with molten semisweet chocolate chips, Baileys Irish Cream and French pastry crème. But Barry can't take all the credit for that one—he says it's his dad's recipe.
• Mediterranean sampler platter
• Bread pudding
4451 Osuna NE
Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; noon to 2 p.m. Saturday
Dinner hours: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; reservations recommended
Price range: $4 (soup) to $21 (peppered lamb loin)
Vibe: Old Country seaside
Vegetarian options: Several, some of which are vegan
Booze: Beer and wine