Trying Times

Husband-and-wife restaurateurs get off to an uneven start

Apr 16, 2003 at 4:00 am
How much you'll like Oliver's -- which opened in December on St. Charles' Main Street -- depends first on how much you dislike Interstate 70, which you can't avoid taking if you're headed thataway. Almost certainly the most unpleasant highway in the greater St. Louis area, pockmarked with construction, narrow lanes and airport congestion, I-70 can prove anxiety-producing even for those who drive it for five minutes. Not a good way to start an evening out.

The Main Street strip, about a mile from the bombast of the Ameristar Casino down the road, exudes "historic" in that appealing but calculated civic-planner sort of way. The street is cobblestoned, and the connected storefronts are done almost entirely in red brick, so much so that a business like the Main Street Gym, with its weightlifting equipment prominently displayed in its bay windows, seems out of place.

Oliver's, which replaced the long-standing Bonaparte's, smartly brings the brick motif into its ground-floor bar and dining area, complementing it with comfy deep-red and hunter-green trim. The pressed-tin ceiling is wonderful to gaze at, and it amplifies the restaurant's din to a lively but not overbearing level. Live jazz -- of the soft-rock variety -- is offered on weekend nights beginning at 10 p.m., when the kitchen closes down. (The bar and music carry on until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.) But those who have the misfortune to be seated in the dining room on the lower level are likely to experience a relapse of I-70-type discomfort. The tiny space houses only about four four-tops, and it's right off the kitchen. The ceiling here is unfinished and encroachingly low, and the fake plants sit less than a foot from where you do. Exposed ceilings and fake plants can only charm from a distance.

Chef Michael Craven worked under the tutelage of St. Louis culinary demigod David Slay at his much-loved Zu Zu's Petals in Kirkwood. But other than the overall New American feel to the menu, Craven has steered clear of copycatting. Nothing resembles Slay's signature gourmet quesadillas in the slightest. And though there may be spinach at Oliver's (in abundance, actually) and a flash-fried appetizer (the calamari; more on that later), there's no flash-fried spinach, another Slay creation. Save for a couple of appetizers and sides, Oliver's menu steers toward safe bets.

Baked Brie, for example, is a gimme. What's not to like about warm, half-melted French cheese sprinkled with almonds and paired with slices of fresh apple and pear? Well, if you want to get nitpicky, it's tricky to cut through the Brie's rind when the softened cheese beneath it provides no resistance, and the fruit slices could stand to be a bit bigger, the better to anchor the cheese.

Bruschetta is another no-brainer, and here all the little details are handled right: The diced tomatoes dusted with Parmesan taste fresh off the vine and downright burst with juice; the bread is slightly toasted; and the two are served alongside one another so the tomatoes don't prematurely soggy up the bread. The most interesting starter is a phyllo strudel stuffed with beef, feta cheese and shiitake mushrooms -- a mild yet fanciful interplay of flavors.

It's wonderful to find a restaurant that neither breads nor deep-fries its calamari. This means, one hopes, that the meat is fleshier and of better quality than the squid detritus hidden inside countless breadcrumb coats and that the kitchen understands that calamari's delicate flavor and firm texture are worthy of being showcased unadorned. Oliver's, though, only gets it half right. The squid is flash-fried, then smeared with a reddish-brown paste that's innocently described on the menu as "spicy sauce." Whatever this potion was, it made me cry. How hot must something be that you actually find yourself diving into an accompanying onion salad to cool your palate?

The salad course is another disappointment. Inexplicably, two of Oliver's four salads -- goat cheese in a beet-and-walnut vinaigrette and fresh greens with almonds and tomatoes topped with raspberry vinaigrette -- are founded on piles of chopped iceberg lettuce. Glazed in their sweet dressings, they taste cheap. The spinach salad, abetted somewhat by raspberries and caramelized walnuts, gets more heft from its greener leaves and so fares slightly better.

The entrée selection illustrates no strong affinity or flair for seafood, beef, poultry or pasta; all are represented, but nothing stands out. Except, perhaps, the presentations: Many dishes are prettied up nicely with firm, richly colored asparagus spears arranged in an artful starburst design. A bland Chilean sea bass was pan-seared to dryness. According to the menu, this entrée comes with "citrus risotto" -- a confounding malapropism when what appears beneath the fish on the plate looks, smells and tastes like Spanish rice. The menu also indicates a mango-mint sauce, but the rice was too spicy for us to detect it.

Red meats are handled more astutely, particularly a rack of lamb in a rich navarraise sauce (i.e., in the style of Navarre, with sweet peppers, onions and garlic) and a filet mignon dolloped with blue cheese and capped with a portobello mushroom. On the other hand, the kitchen needn't have bothered gussying up the pork loin with a honey glaze and a maple pesto; all the sweetness it needed was to be found in the glazed sweet potatoes served on the side, which were memorable. The most crowd-pleasing dish we tried was a Creole pasta: linguine tossed with garlic, leeks and sun-dried tomatoes. What made it, though, was the scrumptious cream sauce. It's troubling when a simple overdose of cream and butter -- a culinary cheat, in a sense -- winds up being the dish everybody likes best.

Oliver's desserts are a treat. Chocolate cake, both Black Forest (sans the traditional whipped-cream topping) and "Chocolate Seduction," manage squishy moistness without resorting to flourless or lava-center gimmicks. Cheesecake stands tall and proud on the plate, formidable but not overbearing. And the crème brûle goes a few inches deeper than most -- what's underneath the burnt-sugar crust seems more like a pudding than a custard, but it tastes too wonderful to matter.

Although the desserts seem to have been pulled off effortlessly, the wine list is in dire need of care and attention. As it stands, it's a pretty haphazard selection, with some good ones -- the rich, berry-crammed A-Mano primitivo, well-suited for zin lovers; and the Cimicky shiraz, from one of the best Aussie producers -- but no real sense that the management has much of an idea how the list might add to the meal. Not all bottles are listed with vintages, and the bouquet descriptions, helpful as they might try to be, don't help. "Fruity, mild and clean," for example," is too broad -- you could be describing Nathan Lane.

The staff -- most notably husband-and-wife proprietors Susan and Harry Oliver -- is deeply committed to your pleasant evening. Susan would probably tong the ice cubes out of your water glass for you one by one, should you happen to mention that you prefer your beverages at room temperature. Still, the service veered between overly authoritative and underexperienced. The seasoned waiters love to make suggestions, occasionally to the point where you feel bad overruling their recommendations. The greener ones, meanwhile, seem flummoxed at times. When one of our party requested bread at the start of a meal, a flustered female runner told her, "It'll come with your salad," though she had no idea whether any of us had ordered salads.

The Olivers are new to the restaurant business. It was the skilled yet homey service they received on a recent trip to Italy, Susan Oliver says, that inspired them to open their own place. The pair's desire is evident and admirable, and enthusiasm can go a long way. But right now the food doesn't always measure up to the owners' good intentions. Perhaps in time it will.