When you ask Renita Mendonca what it was like to participate in one of television’s most arduous chef competitions, she does not hesitate. “It was great!” she exclaims. “I loved the challenge the most, the competition itself.”
The Mumbai native will tell you that life nowadays is less about TV appearances and more about running two businesses—a catering company and a new restaurant—while raising a family. She says her 2011 stint on the Food Network’s “Chopped” will always be linked with the birth of her son. “I was nursing between shoots,” she says, referring to the hectic filming schedule the year before episodes aired. (In the competition, she made it through the entrée round, but was cut before desserts. She doesn’t seem the least bit phased by the turn of events.)
Since then, Mendonca has grown her catering company, Seasoned and Spiced, and made sure that son Liam gets to school. A few years ago, she opened Dates and Olives Mediterranean Grill on a busy block in Brighton. It’s in the same strip mall as coffee house Fuel and Moogy’s Restaurant. If that sounds like an ambitious run of accomplishments, you quickly realize it’s par for the course in the life of this chef-entrepreneur.
After finishing hotel school in India, Mendonca worked on the culinary side of luxury hotels in her home country, as well as in Dubai and Oman, before winning a scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. That led to an internship at The French Laundry, the three-star Michelin restaurant in California. She felt energized by her time in the Golden State. “I’ve loved every place I’ve lived,” she says. For her, food has always been a way to embrace the culture in which she found herself. She credits her home town’s “melting pot of cuisines” as an important influence, as well as her own mother, whom she declares “one of the finest cooks ever.”
Dropping by Dates and Olives one weekday afternoon, we are fortunate to catch up with her. She is often running between the restaurant and pop-up catering gigs around town. Today, she is greeting guests, tallying labor hours, and making sure everything is running smoothly in the kitchen. The simple space, done in a palette of neutrals and light green, is cozy and inviting, with sun streaming through the storefront windows.
At this 20-seat spot, you approach the counter and ask staff to build your meal as a rice bowl, a salad bowl, or a pita pocket. You select an entrée—like grilled chicken with Moroccan spices ($8), beef with Turkish seasonings ($8.50), or falafel ($7.50)—and add four toppings. There are a dozen or more on offer, all arrayed before you. The baba ghanouj here is not the creamy style you find at most other places. This one features chunks of roasted eggplant with fresh tomato and mint. There is also zhoug, an emerald green sauce of puréed parsley, garlic and chiles, and Mendonca’s own version of muhamara, a sweet roasted red pepper dip with ground walnuts and the zip of tangy pomegranate. Flavors here are vivid, bright, and altogether delicious.
Some might be surprised by the eatery’s emphasis on Middle Eastern rather than South Asian flavors. “Mediterranean has been embraced by the masses,” the chef-owner explains, saying she wants to give her customers healthy food that is also familiar. She points out that there is one Indian favorite—mango lassi, the popular yogurt-based drink—in the cold-pressed juice case. It’s made by her husband from his own special recipe.
We’re finishing with the lovely date cake ($4), frosted with whipped labneh cheese, and talking about the holidays. “You know how it is,” Mendonca says with a knowing grin. “You cook at the restaurant and then you cook at home.” She wouldn’t have it any other way.
160 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton, 617-515-0010, datesandolives.com