I was feeling a bit challenged, while researching our St Louis food choices, to find innovative fare. Blue collar, no problem. But the menus I’d perused in search of true creativity and a finer touch felt outdated and as though sampling them would result in the “Prague ham” moment of the trip; i.e. an ill fated, overly priced, less than impressive, completely regrettable, meal.
Olio looked promising, though the Mediterranean inspired menu featured an entire hummus selection which does less then nothing for me. We went for it anyway, on a slightly wet, slightly windy, St. Louis morning, taking an absurdly expensive Uber ($30 something) from downtown to what seemed to be a mostly residential St. Louis neighborhood.
Olio inhabits an old Standard Oil station, maintaining the familiar white tiled façade with red trim,
surrounded, of course, by bushy green trees, plush plants and plenty of brick (apparently, the neighborhood is known as “Botanical Heights”) The restaurant is attached to Elaia, its fancy older sister, via corridor
An exterior courtyard lies between the two restaurants, featuring a serene rock garden surrounded by flowers and plants, where, in better weather, diners can take their meal.
Inside, we took a right to enter Olio, a shabby chic space with walls of beige subway tile and worn wood tables, bathed in natural light, and the sleepy, muted sounds of brunch getting underway.
We sat at the bar, where in a reversal of the norm, glassware occupied the upper shelves of the back bar
while the countertops were topped with various round trays covered in liquor by theme; gins and vodkas, whiskey’s and scotch’s, apertif’s and digestif’s, brandy’s, etc.
This is where things started to get a little wonky at Olio, there with the booze order. They offer plenty of intriguing specialty cocktials; Randi and I each ordered one while the guys chose beer with a) fernet and b) bourbon, served neat. The server took an absurdly long time to locate the various ingredients needed, while stopping intermittently to answer the phone, write things down, futz with the record player (set in the dining room with a small library of records, so patrons can choose the soundtrack) things were not looking good. In fact, it took thirty minutes to get our drinks and we were the only people there, with the exception of two tables in the dining room who were not in need of attention during this time. Behold:
I mean, it didn’t have some absurdly time consuming garnish or muddled bouquet of herbs; just your standard coupe full of mixed liquids.
Once we had our drinks and agreed that no more cocktails would be ordered at Olio, we made our first attempt at ordering food, and, things got slightly worse. The routine went thusly; our server would take our order, walk back to the “open” kitchen behind her (viewable, but without seating), where the cook was nowhere near being set up, in fact, the food was all wrapped and the equipment appeared to be off, then she would go over our order with the cook (I guess he was the cook) and she would return to us and tell us that they were out of the items were ordered. This went on two or three times, until finally we asked her to let us know what they did, in fact have. I should mention they had been open for near two hours at this point.
Jake and I were thinking the same thing, clearly Olio was a new venture, they didn’t have their ordering down yet, or their flow, the server is new, etc. So when we asked how long Olio had been up and running, we were pretty shocked to hear that they have been slowly serving half their menu to St. Louisan’s for the last three years.
Of course, nothing hot was available, the kitchen equipment being off and all. And yet, it still took another 30-45 minutes for us to get our food, which consisted of toasts covered in cold, premade salads (they were phenom), hummus (premade, of course), and a carrot salad, the elements of which, one would hope, had already been prepped and simply required assembling. My point, why on earth did everything take so friggen long at this place??
The cold salads, egg and whitefish, were spectacular. The egg salad, a fluffy yet dense mound, slightly dry (read: not over mayo’d) with a delightfully prominent amount of lemon zest and a little bit of finishing chive.
We had seen online that they come with boquerones, though in our case they did not and we had to ask (which i think is always the case), at any rate, the pickly fish was the perfect crown for what already seemed to be the perfect toast.
Their whitefish salad sent Randi and I into fits; perfectly fishy/skanky, nice and wet, topped with rings of raw onion and capers and served atop more toasted bread. A note on that; bread can suck really hard in the Midwest, but this loaf possessed a nice crust with a blissfully pleasant malty flavor.
The hummus was everyone’s least favorite, because, sorry Middle East, but hummus is super boring. We ended up with it because they were out of everything else, and, we were hungry. This version was topped with poached wild caught shrimp, olive oil, chives, and pine nuts. You know, it was hummus.
The carrot salad, on the other hand, was unique and memorable, a freshly vibrant collection of thickly julienned raw carrot, mandarin orange slices, and a healthy dose of fresh herbs; dill, chives, and flat leaf parsley. While the mandarin orange part of it may seem odd, the juicy little crescents gave the dish a perfect splash of bright, citrusy flavor.
At some point during our meal, we ordered a bottle of wine, as we were not willing to go down the cocktail rabbit hole again. Unfortunately, this just threw us into a wine themed rabbit hold instead, wherein we placed an order, the server searched for it (while stopping to answer the phone, write things down, talk to the cook) told us they were out of it, and then…repeat. Once again we had to ask for what they did, indeed have.
Maybe it was just an off day at Olio. Maybe people called in sick, and the orders didn’t come in, food or booze. Maybe. But, no one acted as though it was a bad day at Olio, there was no sense of panic, or, last minute adjustment; the staff all behaved as though it was just another delightful day not really serving brunch. The failings were so consistent and universal that it’s hard to think they were a fluke, which is unfortunate, because Olio has some really great food once one actually succeeds in scoring some.
1634 Tower Grove
St. Louis, MO. 63110