When a longtime chef became a mom, she saw the whole food industry differently.
“After my son was born, i started going to grocery stores and, when I was looking at labels my mommy instincts kicked in,” said Renita Mendonca. “I saw that there was such a drastic need for freshly prepared foods.”
After she perfected some recipes for her family, a couple of years ago she launched Seasoned and Spiced, featuring a line of international vegetarian dips and prepared foods, which she sold at farmer’s markets, and via her catering business. Last month, she took the next logical step and opened Dates and Olives, a fast-casual Mediterranean-based dining spot in Brighton.
Like Seasoned and Spiced, the menu of Lebanese, Israeli, Greek, Turkish and Moroccan-inspired recipes is made in small batches with local ingredients, making each meal taste fresh. Many of the dishes are vegan and/or gluten-free (as GF as can be made in a non-GF certified kitchen, that is).
The concept lets guests build their own bowls by mixing and matching ingredients. No matter what they choose, it’s a dish that falls under the guidelines of the famed Mediterranean diet; the only fried food is the falafel.
“My falafel is authentic,” she explained. “I make it predominantly with fava beans, and I soak the chickpeas overnight. I cook both the chickpeas and fava beans separately, grind them until creamy, then add spices. We don’t use chickpea flour.” She’s also planning falafel theme nights, such as Buffalo Falafel flavors.
As she discussed her other ingredients, it was apparent that she doesn’t believe in taking any shortcuts with preparation. Her vegetables and ingredients aren’t canned. It reduces her profit margin, but she’s adamant about quality.
She didn’t take a shortcut in her career, either. Chef Renita Mendonca grew up in the culinary melting pot of Mumbai, India, and was taught how to cook first from her mother, who used authentic Indian flavors. The recipient of a culinary scholarship at Johnson & Wales University, Mendonca worked at the renowned The French Laundry in Napa, California, and honed her international culinary skills working for the luxury Taj Group of Hotels in India, Sun International Group of Hotels in Dubai, Hyatt International in Oman, as well as Compass group and AVI food systems in the United States and Spain.
Two decades into her career, she and her husband, Rattan Menzies, settled down in Natick, and, after the birth of their son, she tried to be a stay-at-home mom for the first year, while she entertained switching careers. But then, when it came time to buy food for her son, she couldn’t find prepared items that were fresh, flavorful and chemical-free, and so she put her chef hat back on and got cooking again.
She taught at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and in 2011 was a contestant on Chopped on the Food Network, making a holiday meal from mystery ingredients in an episode entitled ‘Can’t Catch Me, I’m the Gingerbread Lobster.’ Chef Renita has also been featured on Cityline with Karen Ward. She started Seasoned and Spiced, cooking at night and selling in the morning. It was a schedule that she was able to balance for a while with taking care of her son, but eventually, she knew the next step was opening her own kitchen.
“It was too tiring, it was affecting my health, and my son is growing up. I needed my own kitchen space. When this space opened up we looked at the demographics and realized this would be a good storefront for a Mediterranean concept, which I was toying around with for a long long time.”
The 20-seat restaurant has pale walls lined with artwork from another farmer’s market friend, and she painted the chairs herself. Her staff travels for the catering and farmstand side of the business, and as a team they create all of the Dates and Olives items from scratch.
“All of our recipes are kept authentic,” she said.
The most popular items on the menu include the Muhamara, a rich roasted red pepper dip with walnuts, pomegranates, herbs and lemon, served with a thick round of Israeli pita. “I don’t use canned peppers, I roast them myself, with parsley, lemon juice, minimal olive oil, then I make it with garlic and olive oil. Many use bread crumbs for filler, but I don’t. The baba ganouj, I salt it down, take out all the toxins by soaking it overnight, and wash and dry it out; I then dry it in the oven, and make it from there. It’s all about the details we put in our recipes.”
The bowls start with brown rice, salad or pita bread, to which you choose chicken grilled with Moroccan spices, beef grilled with Turkish spices; Falafel fritters; or grilled vegetables. To this, choose four items, including the following vegan/gluten-free items that can also be ordered on the side:
traditional choices tabbouleh, hummus and baba ganouj; the millet tabbouleh salad is made with parsley, millet, onions, tomatoes, mint, lemon and olive oil.
fattoush salad with romaine with radish, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and sumac with lemon dressing
carrot raisin salad — a warm mellow spice of toasted cumin, parsley, and minced raisins
Greek roasted potato salad
olives — she marinates her own olives, with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and chili flakes, and changes the olive variety frequently.
feta and cheddar cheese
Yufka chips made from Turkish bread
a marinated red cabbage slaw with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and mint
pickled turnips, yogurt mint sauce, hot zhoug sauce, tahini sauce.
While the items for the bowl are arranged on a steam table, behind glass for customers to point and choose, she has thought carefully about how this was to be arranged. The spiced chicken and beef is on one side, the vegetables on the other, the bread in another area, to avoid cross-contamination. And she only makes enough to ensure that she’ll replenish each item frequently; for example, the rice is refilled every half-hour. The roasted vegetables are seasonal, the rice is replenished every half-hour. We tried the chicken and rice bowl, with the eggplant, cabbage slaw, tabbouleh, olives and falafel; and a salad with grilled vegetables and similar toppings. Both were wonderful. My son and I had split the chicken dish, and it was so filling we had leftovers. Warmed up the next day, with all the flavors a melange, it was still delicious.
From our experience, the food was fresh with depths of flavor that I had long missed at the usual takeout Mediterranean stand.
There’s only two other desserts right now: a date cake with syrian yogurt cheese, and rice pudding with cinnamon and vanilla.
To drink, there are gourmet sodas, but my son chose chai, made with her own blend of spices that she makes ahead of time with milk and sugar, served hot. Her cold-pressed fresh juices are designed to complement the dishes, or a good thing to grab for the morning. There’s mixed green glow (kale, parsley, lemon, apple juice, cucumber); beet glow, and carrot glow, that she makes fresh. We all loved the mango lassi ($4), a yogurt drink that was refreshing and delicious. Alas, it’s her husband’s recipe, she admits.
The only items NOT made from scratch are the pita bread, cheese, and the ice cream, made from lactose-free milk and cream along with farm fresh eggs, from Minus the Moo, a fellow farmer’s market seller. On the weekends they also feature an American breakfast, with eggs and out-sourced bagels, and an expanded menu when she gets rolling.
As for Seasoned and Spiced, she is now offering Tiffin deliveries, where you select four dishes (with additional dishes at $12 each) among the following choices: Kumb Makai Palak; Aloo Rassa; Sambhar; Butter Chicken; Chicken Chettinad; Dal Makhani; Aloo Capsicum. Served with rice and five Chapattis (additional chapattis will be at $1 each).
So with all the plates she’s juggling, she’s busy but happy. “I tried running away from food multiple times, but i kept coming right back. This is a pure labor of love,” she said. “It’s been 20 years in the making.”
Dates and Olives
160 Chestnut Hill Avenue
Tuesday through Saturday 10AM to 8PM; Sundays from 10AM to 6PM.