Monday, November 9, 2009

Olivadi: The Next Olive Garden?

Let’s face facts: aside from Greek restaurant staple Byblos, Norwood Center has never been a must-drive dining destination that foodies have marked down on their calendars. Lo and behold, Olivadi Restaurant & Bar arrived just over a year ago riding the wave of Chef Daniele Baliani’s impressive culinary pedigree and the promise of delectable ‘modern classic’ Italian cuisine. Only a few months in, however, Baliani abruptly left, leading to General Manager Bruno Marini, formerly of the Federalist, to oversee the kitchen. With Baliani’s departure, would Olivadi’s cuisine be lost amidst the transition?

Sadly, yes. Whereas the wine selection (impressively stocked at 280) is extensive and moderately priced, and the cocktails are tasty enough (the Lime Rickey and Olivadi Punch, in particular), it’s the lack of flavors that make the restaurant’s fare seem well, just fair – sometimes bordering upon poor.

For starters, a complimentary basket of homemade bread and crostini with olive-colored, herb-flavored dipping sauce is satisfying enough. As are the fried calimari ($10), which are cooked in lemon-garlic aioli and served with arrabiata tomato dipping sauces. A dining companion remarks how perfectly cooked these crustaceans are prepared based on their rubbery-ness and lightness. I agree, though they lack any distinct flavor, sauces included (there’s no spiciness to the arrabiata). The spinach salad ($8) with sliced pears, candied pistachios, ricotta salad, crispy bacon, and champaigne vinaigrette sounds like a medley for the mouth (particularly given my affinity for all things bacon on greens). It’s decent enough, but for all of the wonderful ingredients, this medley doesn’t quite sing in flavor. And the cheese, in particular, a common theme throughout the course of the meal, is bland bordering on tart. There’s no balance to it. The seafood cioppino ($9/$18) is an improvement, a tuscan stew of mussels, shrimp, cod and onions in a spicy tomato broth. While the mussels and shrimp are instantly forgettable, the cod is perfectly cooked and the broth is delightful. Not so delightful is an oven roasted duck tart ($11), which sounds full of promise, but is surprisingly – wait for it – bland in texture and taste. The caramelized onions and goat cheese should elevate this unique dish but ultimately make it rather pedestrian. The carpaccio ($8) may be the worst dish on the menu. It is described as paper-thin beef tenderloin, and that description may be generous. Lumped together with baby arugula, the meat is barely recognizable and tasteless. We might as well have ordered another salad from the antipasti menu.

Entrees were equally disappointing. The stuffed pork chop Milanese ($21) came highly recommended by our server, and we were baffled as to why. The cut of meat, which came lightly fried, was slightly overcooked. The fontina cheese oozing from the sides would be a nice novelty had the cheese registered any distinct flavor. Nor could I find a trace of prosciutto that was supposed to be part of the dish. A truffled fondue sauce was overkill based on the amount of cheese within the cut of meat. Worst of all, a side of broccoli rabe was oversalted and had hints of fishiness to it, rendering it inedible. Mashed potatoes reaked of being pre-made and seemed a heavy compliment to such a dish. A dining companion of ours barely touched her Nonna’s roast chicken ($17), and it was easy to discern why: the bird was extremely overcooked and dry, which begs the question: how does a place carrying itself as a fine dining establishment destroy something so rudimentary to prepare? It would not have surprised us if our server had suddenly come out to apologize for a new chef manning the kitchen – that’s how mediocre the quality of the food was that evening.

Service is certainly hospitable enough. Our server was patient, cordial, and brutally honest in his opinions on what he believed worked and what didn’t on the menu. Unfortunately for him, there’s not much on the menu that did.

I’d heard second-hand reports that $3 million was invested to renovate Olivadi’s space. While the earthy tones, wooden floor, and dropped ceilings lend a hint of casual intimacy ambience-wise, there’s nothing remotely memorable about it (like the food itself). And by the looks of things on a Sunday evening, in which we were the lone table served, Olivadi may well face a steep climb if it is to celebrate its second anniversary next year. Mezza-mezza food may be acceptable for customers frequenting the Olive Garden, but for Olivadi, we expect much better.

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