This year Christmas began during the first weekend of November. I saw it happening in Soho that weekend?saw the Christmas displays materializing in the windows. Yes, it was I who bore witness; it was I who saw the Christmas lights stringing during the first cold Saturday of that premature month. An unstoppable juggernaut, and within a decade it will begin in mid-October. And so Christmas?a gorgeous pagan celebration of darkness and light?has become another American ideological imposition, one as obnoxious and beyond debate as a hundred others.
The Christmas complex, in fact, has caught up even with the lube monkeys. This was the first year I noticed Christmas music blaring out of boomboxes even in places like cement factories and lumberyards when I'd ride my bike around the city. As recently as, say, five years ago, you could still have peddled past Lower West Side autoglass shops or outdoor emporia of Catholic lawn statuary in Gravesend and not heard holiday theme music blaring into the streets from such unlikely places ("AH'LL BE HOOOOOME FER...") as you shot by, your nose running at 25 per. Holiday mewling mixed with the stench of vulcanized rubber and the hissing of pressure guns. Five years ago teamsters loading gravel on the banks of the Gowanus hadn't been forced to board that train yet?the orders hadn't yet come down from whoever's giving them. But now you walk into even a bodega?some hole with a glass carousel and the nervous Korean back there's real eager to move for the shotgun?and even there you hear Nat King Cole or whomever on the room's boombox, wearing spats and white gloves moaning "KA-RISTMAAAAAS!" or some such, and you need to hold your ears. What's worse is that it's probably not all cynical, not just marketing. It's probably on some level an expression of a deep, abiding American religious faith.
So with the margins burned off my body from the fever I staggered from my cave, coughed violently, blinked at the cold Advent light and limped down to what's truly a minor Park Slope institution, by which I mean the original Olive Vine restaurant, down there on 6th Ave. between Sterling and Park Pls., not too far from Flatbush Ave. You know, the Olive Vine. Where, if you live in Park Slope, you go to sit in that sweet little room, decorated with the warm, nice, low-budget comfort of the dorm room of a Middle Eastern Studies major, and order stuffed grape leaves and falafel and tabouleh and lentil soup and individual-sized pizzas and hummus and such, and eat it, and listen to orientalist music on the sound system and enjoy yourself. And what's more, as pleasant as this is, you do this more than you'd like to, because in Park Slope the Olive Vine's the only game in town, it's the only real restaurant extant, everything else is a ripoff, a hustle. Everything else tastes bad.
Or it used to be that way. The Olive Vine's traditionally functioned for Park Slope the way Nick Anderson used to function for Orlando Magic fans years ago, before Shaquille joined the team. Everybody rooted for the place, because there wasn't much else going on. But the fact is that not everything in Park Slope is bad anymore and in fact the new existence of some good restaurants in the neighborhood is a documented fact. This reality reinscribes the Olive Vine differently into the Brooklyn culinary landscape. It's no longer an heroic little establishment maintaining a certain level of quality in a borough where most restaurateurs botch everything. Now it's just a cheerful little budget place, a Middle Eastern restaurant with cuisine that's been softened, mitigated somewhat for Whitey. It's about my fourth favorite area restaurant now. It used to be my first. It's still just as good, though. That says something nice about the neighborhood.
I made two trips there recently, as a matter of fact, to inspect the menu after all these years. To check out the sandwiches?falafel and chicken are the best ones?for instance. The falafel croquettes here are creamy and melting things, liquescing at their warm cores, stuffed in there with the usual chopped romaine lettuce and tomato chunks and tahini sauce. But here's the secret of Olive Vine sandwiches: instead of the ingredients being crammed into some depressing pita, they're wrapped tightly into hot sheets of excellent white flat bread that's crispy on its outside surface and then chewy throughout, so that what you've got is a compact cylinder of a sandwich that's easy to eat?a tight, well-constructed sandwich. The chicken sandwiches are made with chunks of braised chicken seasoned to such a shade of darkness that they can be mistaken for pieces of lamb, and the contrast between the spicy chicken, bathed in cool sauce, and the hot, neutral bread is good. Lentil soup is lentil soup is lentil soup, but here it's served with that hot bread to play with and ball up and shoot off your table with your finger.
It's the pizzas, though, for which it's actually worth seeking the Olive Vine out, even if you don't live in the neighborhood. I'm not sure I've come across many pizza crusts that I like as much as I do the ones that are served here. I'm not kidding. Maybe at John's; maybe in New Haven. But you expect good crust at John's and in New Haven, while you don't necessarily at places like this. It's a wonderfully chewy medium, this crust, charred a little at the bottom as if it had been baked in the brick oven the Olive Vine doesn't own, and tasting strongly of wood smoke and faintly of garlic and onion. In concert with the restaurant's excellent, heavily garlicked pizza sauce, it ennobles whatever toppings it bears. The Olive Vine pizza (zucchini, eggplant, chopped garlic, more) and the vegetarian pizza (green peppers, scallions, mushrooms, more) are the best, and I often order both without cheese in order to better taste the sauce and the crust. The scallop pizza should be avoided.
Afterward I took my good baklava in hand and left the little restaurant, the yellow brick walls and red hangings glowing bright and the front windows fogged over cheerfully. Outside, dusk had fallen over that pretty stretch of 6th Ave. with its skeletal trees and brownstones and its sweet, stolid churches. The St. Augustine's congregation was in vespers across the street?I stuck my head against the door and listened. Okay. A moon above the park and the last light searing the cold sky. Candles in windows and glimpses of evergreens in high-ceilinged parlors as I walked. It was nice.
The Olive Vine, 131 6th Ave. (betw. Sterling & Park Pls.), Brooklyn, 718-636-4333.