Pan D'Olive Bustles, But It's Not Worth the Bread

Slideshow: Inside Pan D' Olive on McCausland

Mar 7, 2013 at 4:00 am
Walnut-encrusted trout with lemon butter and spinach. Slideshow: Inside Pan D' Olive on McCausland
Walnut-encrusted trout with lemon butter and spinach. Slideshow: Inside Pan D' Olive on McCausland Jennifer Silverberg

Pan D'Olive takes its name from the restaurant's olive bread. I didn't see so much as a crumb of this bread on my first visit there. To be fair, though, I was having dinner at the bar, and if I'd wanted olives, I'd have ordered a martini. On my second visit, a server brought the table a basket of putatively freshly baked bread to begin the meal. It contained slices of French or maybe Italian bread (golden-crusted but underbaked and actually cold in the center) and rolls that in both appearance and flavor resembled what you'd grab from the supermarket freezer because company's coming and you forgot about bread.

As a rule, I don't fret about a restaurant's free bread or lack thereof. I don't want to stuff myself before the main event, and as I have precisely no willpower, I will stuff myself. But, again, the restaurant is named for its olive bread, and just as I wouldn't dine at Tommy T's Trend-Humping Emporium without trying the cupcake-pork belly sliders, I knew I must have Pan D'Olive's pan d'olive.

Pan D'Olive opened in November in the city's Franz Park neighborhood. The building was previously home to Mihalis Chophouse, a spacious and swanky steak house and lounge that closed in 2010 after a run of not quite five years. The layout is essentially the same. You enter into the bar area: the bar itself and hightop tables to your left; to your right, tables and a dramatic mezzanine lounge. The dining room is in the back. There are the usual freestanding tables, but you'll want to sit in one of the secluded booths. The décor throughout is upscale but generically so, with enough gleaming dark wood that the restaurant must purchase Murphy Oil Soap by the vat. Service is cordial and efficient. It has to be. The restaurant is already packing them in. Walking in on a Tuesday evening, even, I had to wait for a table.

Owner Sam Kacar also operates the Italian restaurant Trattoria Branica, which at one point counted three locations throughout St. Louis County but has retrenched from its Chesterfield and Kirkwood satellites to the Frontenac original. The menu at Pan D'Olive features several Italian dishes, but the approach here is more broadly Mediterranean, with nods to Greece, Turkey and southern France. The prices are lower than the restaurant's look might lead you to believe: Most entrées come in under $20, and there are more than a dozen appetizers (small plates, flatbreads and bruschetta) that cost $10 or less.

In truth, the price is more indicative of a dish's quality than is the menu's description. Consider the arancini, one of the small plates. The ingredients listed on the menu suggest a distinctive take on the traditional Sicilian fried rice balls: steak instead of humble meat ragù; Gorgonzola in place of mozzarella; potato. What you receive, atop a puddle of marinara, are...two fried rice balls, gooey with a cheese that lacks Gorgonzola's funk, bulked out with meat that might technically be steak. These aren't bad arancini — just nothing more or less than what you'd expect for $5. Likewise, an order of fried calamari, another small plate, brings tender squid fried to a light crisp — a straightforward snack and a steal at just $6 — yet the two accompanying dipping sauces (marinara and a caper aioli) are slopped across the plate so that they bleed into each other.

A trout entrée intrigues with "walnut-encrusted" promise. Instead a few chopped walnuts dust the grilled fillet, and the flavor is simply the fish splashed with lemon juice and olive oil. Nothing wrong with simple flavors, but I'd had my heart set on that nutty, crunchy crust. Its side dish, sautéed baby spinach with tomato and whole cloves of roasted garlic, has more punch. The lamb shank is an impressive hunk of meat, but the vegetable jus in which it sits adds nothing to its natural flavor, and a side of orzo-rice pilaf merely checks the "this needs a grain" box.

At $25, the charbroiled rib eye is Pan D'Olive's most expensive dish. That price tag indicates one of two things: either an absolute steal on a great steak or a lousy piece of meat. Sadly, the answer is the latter: a cut much thinner than a rib eye should be. Grill char, rather than beautifully marbled fat, is the predominant flavor. Here is the flaw of so many St. Louis restaurants: Rather than appeal to a patron's pocketbook with a truly tasty value steak — a hanger, say, or a flatiron — Pan D'Olive opts for an inferior version of the marquee name.

The closest match of execution and cost is a simple baked cannelloni — a dish so resolutely old-fashioned that I might have ignored it entirely had my wife not expressed an interest in it. (She's pregnant. I don't cross her.) Its combination of a hearty Bolognese sauce and a properly made béchamel not only conveyed flavor, it showed some soul.

On my final visit, a weekday lunch, the pan d'olive turned up. It was bread studded with bits of olive, as generic as the rest of my Pan D'Olive experience. Then again, how much can I fault a restaurant for offering safe, value-conscious cuisine? The olive bread proved just about as difficult to find as a spot in the restaurant's expansive parking lot.

Slideshow: Inside Pan D' Olive on McCausland