Review: Elaia and Olio in St. Louis
At Elaia and Olio, one expects the olive oil to be damn good. Elaia (el-ah’-yah), after all, takes its name from the Greek word for both the fruit of the olive tree and the liquid gold of those pressed olives, while Olio is Italian for “oil.” Sure enough, dabs of glassy, green, fruity oil dotted my seafood stew like translucent little jewels floating in a pool of creamy white. It was Sunday brunch at Olio, a stylish wine bar/small plates concept and half of Ben Poremba’s ambitious dual project located in the rapidly gentrifying Botanical Heights neighborhood formerly known as McCree Town. Housed in a jaw-droppingly restored 1930s art deco gas station (more oil), complete with white-glazed brick and bright red cornice, Olio must be the coolest old place/new space around. Where Olio is rakish and industrial, Elaia is elegant and exquisite, located in a rehabbed house conjoined to Olio by a corridor. The two are also connected by a repertoire of flavors, hospitality and a culture of sharing that defines what Poremba dubs Middle-Terranean: the southern parts of Spain, France and Italy, and all of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, North Africa and his native Israel.
But back to Olio’s stew, the one scented with thyme and chock-full of chunks of halibut and big, fleshy diver and small, plumpish bay scallops, all in a delicate fish stock with a hint of cream. Not so much a stew as a soup, it provided delicious warmth on a cold Sunday morning. All it lacked was a few thick slices of crusty bread to soak up the fragrant liquid.
Also for brunch is shakshuka, an Israeli dish with deep North African roots of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, thick and chunky. Poremba poaches the eggs separately before placing them atop the sauce and, that week, added marble-sized chickpeas before serving it in a small copper dish. A drizzle of Olio’s own private label olive oil made the two quivering white pillows glisten in the morning sun, the overall seasoning more mellow than fiery. Poremba’s grandmother’s “famous” egg salad makes an elegant tartine: three thick slices of crusty bread, each topped with a blend of perfectly boiled egg so finely chopped it’s nearly granular in texture, flecks of herbs, and just a enough mayo to bind and keep everything moist.
Although brunch is quite popular, Olio belongs to the night, which is often packed and lively. From the outside looking in, there’s a warm glow spilling out of the large storefront windows and bay door, like a more inviting version of the Hopper’s Nighthawks painting. You want to go inside. Once there, it’s an olio of modern and retro, to use the word’s English meaning for mixture and miscellany. A vintage record player pumps the soundtrack through Bose speakers; faux shop lights provide bar lighting; servers use iPads; a spider-like chandelier constructed of swing arm desk lamps hangs in the service bay; canisters of olive oil echoing the old motor oil cans sit on shelves of reclaimed wood; patrons reflect both cheap chic and upscale boutique, many wearing the hippest of eyeglasses.
There are clever cocktails, each with their fancy ingredients and born-on dates listed on the menu. There are local and international beers to sip. But more than anything, there is wine, all from regions matching the Mid-Terranean focus of the food. With a list this well-constructed and curated by Brandon Kerne and Andrey Ivanov (the beverage manager who holds the title of Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers), there is no reason to stick to merlot and chardonnay. Stretch a bit with a big-bodied Italian red made from the Aglianico grape, with its smoky dark fruit and firm tannins described on the menu as “the true iron fist in a velvet glove.” To further the adventure, explore wines from Lebanon, Austria, Greece and even Mexico, and lesser-known varietals from well-known regions of France, Spain and Italy, all described unpretentiously by Ivanov and the well-trained staff. While there is an extensive list of wines by-the-glass, the monthly wine flights offer a great opportunity to explore.
Of course there are excellent salumi and charcuterie from Salume Beddu, where Poremba is a co-owner, and, during my visits, delightful miniatures like cauliflower tahini and salmon rillettes. But pause before ordering, lest your eyes widen to the size of small plates when the check arrives; two of us easily split a c-note for three glasses of wine and four, three-bite noshes. Brunch aside, I was more impressed with Olio’s ambiance and drinks than the food.
If Olio is the coolest place to be seen, Elaia is the sexiest. Like Olio, everything at Elaia has a story: the flooring made from reclaimed cork, the “Monsterpiece” chandelier desgined by Poremba and made by local artist Jenni B. Jipsi, the heavy Dr. Suess-like chairs constructed from composite materials. Where the fare at Olio is almost too focused and simple, Elaia’s is expansive and complex, modern without being anonymous, creative yet controlled. The Berkshire pork was “roasted” for six hours in what Poremba called his magical oven (a CVap, which maintains heat and moisture at a constant temperature for long periods). But the real magic was on the plate: A substantial 1½-inch thick glistening boneless loin cooked to the proper 140 degrees, possessing a texture as tender and smooth as veal – something no normal roasting could approximate. Also on the plate: creamed cabbage, black-eyed peas and a dollop of whipped salt-baked sweet potato. A bit of this, a bit of that on the fork and you choose the perfect bite.
Beef – tender slices of tenderloin, braised and roasted – came splayed out on a bed of sweet and mellow braised fennel, charred eggplant and fava beans; each ingredient softly complementing the other but supporting the star of the dish. To begin the meal, though, there were pumpkin soup and a parfait of foie gras; the former thick and earthy, the latter a pop-in-your-mouth delicacy of funky lusciousness accented by a strip of coconut gelée all on a schmear of puréed mango. For added whimsy, a scattering of puffed rice to the side. Both the tasting and a la carte menus change nightly, with by-the-glass wine selections following suit. Complain all you want about the limited offerings – a mere three or four – and unlisted prices, but I, for one, was happy to try something I’d never heard of nor would’ve tried were it not for my trust in Ivanov’s knowledge: a spicy and remarkably refreshing Austrian red made from the Blaufrankisch grape. A dessert of chouquette more than satisfied, with its light choux pastry dome filled with a mixture of pastry cream and heavy whipping cream, resting in a pool of caramel sauce and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Sweet, crunchy, boozy.
A professor friend of mine recently published Exquisite Mixture, a book in which he examines the intellectual history of how blending foreign ideas and cultures, not Anglo-Saxon sovereignty, transformed early 18th century England. At Elaia and Olio, urban renewal is admixed with renewed emphasis on worldly wines and foods of different cultures. Exquisite, indeed.
AT A GLANCE: ELAIA
1634 Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314.932.1088,
Don’t Miss Dishes
Menu changes nightly but any beef, pork or fish entree.
Sexy, subdued and elegant – a mere 28 seats.
$20 to $30. Tasting menu: $100, $200 with wine pairing.
Tue. to Sat. – 5:30 to 10 p.m. (last seating at 10 p.m.)
AT A GLANCE: OLIO
1634 Tower Grove Ave., St. Louis, 314.932.1088
Don’t Miss Dishes
Brunch: Egg salad tartine, anything with eggs and Salume Beddu bacon.
The place to be seen – bright, rakish and industrial.
Brunch: $7 to $18.
Lunch/Dinner: $6 to $15.
Lunch: Tue. to Sat. – 11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tue. to Sat. – 5 p.m. to midnight. Sun. – 6 to 9 p.m. (3-course prix fixe only). Brunch: Sun. – 11 a.m. to