Best in Shaw: Botanical Heights hits the jackpot with chef Ben Poremba's far-from-identical twins Elaia and Olio

Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio

Best in Shaw: Botanical Heights hits the jackpot with chef Ben Poremba's far-from-identical twins Elaia and Olio
Jennifer Silverberg
The minimalist bay scallop crudo from Elaia's tasting menu. Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio

Before our tasting menu at Elaia officially begins, before the first of twelve courses (or was it fourteen? my post-meal notes, chicken scratch under ideal circumstances, suggest that at some point I entered a state of delirium, or left the space-time continuum altogether, and lost count) arrives at our table, our server presents a wooden slab with thinly sliced ham in two artfully disheveled piles. In one pile is the famed jamón ibérico of Spain. In the other is culatello from Salume Beddu, the acclaimed south-city salumeria in which Elaia owner and chef Ben Poremba is a partner. My friend and I look from the jamón to the culatello and then back again. Is Poremba really putting his salume up against maybe the most revered cured meat in the world?

"That," says my friend, "is a ballsy move."

The culatello (a cut from the upper rear of the pig's hind leg — think of it as an especially refined prosciutto) more than holds its own against the celebrated jamón. Aged for two years, it has a remarkable depth of flavor — to pork what bourbon is to corn, rich and sweet, with hints of fruit and spice and earth. The pairing was the exclamation point on what the length of the tasting menu, the quality of our stemware, even the aesthetic appeal of the chair in which I was sitting (it is a beautiful chair) had made clear: Elaia and its adjoining wine bar, Olio, are nothing if not bold.

At Olio - Bruschetta with fresh ricotta, braised beet stems, pecorino sardo. Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio
Jennifer Silverberg
At Olio - Bruschetta with fresh ricotta, braised beet stems, pecorino sardo. Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio
At Elaia - Roast Pork. Salt-baked sweet potatoes, carrot, fresh favas, horseradish chips. Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio
Jennifer Silverberg
At Elaia - Roast Pork. Salt-baked sweet potatoes, carrot, fresh favas, horseradish chips. Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio

Location Info

Map

Elaia

1634 Tower Grove Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: St. Louis - Tower Grove

Olio

1634 Tower Grove Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: St. Louis - Tower Grove

Details

Elaia and Olio
Olio cheese plate...$15
Scallops with bacon dashi...$27
Elaia tasting menu (per person)...$100

1634 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-1088.

Hours:
Elaia
5:30-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Olio
Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Dinner 5 p.m.-midnight Tue.-Sun.
Brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sun.
(Bar open till 1:30 a.m. Tue.-Sat.)

Elaia and Olio opened in November of last year at the intersection of Tower Grove and McRee avenues in the Botanical Heights neighborhood. Immediately north of Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden, this was previously known, and notorious, as McRee Town. The project, overseen by the St. Louis firm UIC (Urban Improvement Company), is a striking example of urban preservation. Elaia occupies the main floor of a stately 120-year-old house. The interior reveals an elegant, modern renovation, small (it seats 28) but not cramped, with restrained décor — save for one showpiece: a stunning chandelier built out of old pots, fry baskets, bike wheels and assorted other scrap.

Poremba's cooking is Mediterranean in the broadest possible sense: He is a native of Israel; his mother is from Morocco; he has studied and worked in France and Italy. He is confident enough to combine any or all of his influences in a single dish, and he shifts with ease from sophisticated compositions to rustic fare. A salad course could bring segments of winter citrus arranged in Van Gogh swirls, or it could be as straightforward as greens tossed with slivered pigs' ears. The listeners have a mild pork flavor; softened over hours in a pressure cooker, they retain only the slightest cartilaginous spring. A tasting menu might include both a parfait of foie gras with sour cherries and pistachios — you want to spread the foie on toast with the same delicacy with which you polish your great-grandparents' china — as well as a bowl of charred green beans with anchovies, preserved lemon, mint and fresh, housemade ricotta. My friend and I loved both dishes, but we nearly came to blows over the last of the green beans.

Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio

Pickled herring atop a sliver of pumpernickel with potato, beets and crème fraîche follows a recipe passed down from Poremba's grandmother — "Not a word changed!" he exclaims, then adds that this happens to be the only dish his grandmother cooked well — utterly humble and a lovely bite of salt and sea and brine. Grandma might not have coddled scallops so, but an already delicate bay scallop crudo on the tasting menu benefits from the tart, evanescent grapefruit granita the kitchen paints over it. An à la carte entrée of three plump, pan-seared scallops receives a minimalist arrangement, each scallop paired with a small bit of bok choy, with a contrail of cauliflower purée across the center of the plate. "Lovely," you think, and reach for your fork. Wait. Over this, Poremba pours tableside an umami-rich bacon dashi. It muddies the painstaking presentation but deepens the flavor immeasurably.

Poremba is at his best here, blending the high and the low. A dish of charred octopus tossed with chickpeas and piquillo peppers looks — and, at first, tastes — like something fresh from a seaside grill. Yet touches of black garlic and house-fermented kefir add sophistication and a lingering finish. A duo of pork (roasted loin and braised belly) with beluga lentils and braised fennel is a no-brainer cold-weather bistro dish, but a simple side of salt-baked sweet potato gives it the heft of a beloved childhood meal. In such dishes Poremba and his team display not only abundant skill and intelligence but personality.

A few dishes need some panache — or at least a dash of salt. A parsnip-potato soup is pleasantly creamy and featured an interesting textural contrast with crunchy bits of apple, celery and walnut, but it is dead on the palate. Sweetbreads with ethereally light gnocchi have the offal's distinctly earthy flavor, but little else. A splash of acid? A hint of peppery heat? Something is missing.

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