By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun
October 22, 2011
The view from the Olive Room, the serenely seductive new penthouse restaurant at the Inn at the Black Olive, dazzles you senseless. Suddenly, Baltimore, seen from this fresh angle, looks like a European port city, vibrant and jagged, a starry skyline rising from waterfront promenades.
The restaurant comes from the Spiliadis family, whose Black Olive introduced Baltimore diners, back in 1995, to the radical idea that the fish you eat in a restaurant could be fresh. Come meet your dinner, the waiters would say, as they walked diners from their table to the fish tank.
If Stelios Spiliadis held diners riveted with a compelling seafood story, the new Olive Room enlarges the narrative to include other principal players in Greek cuisine. Enter the lamb.
The Olive Room menu features a porterhouse steak and Greek-style pork chops, but, most essentially, lamb. Lamb chops, Turkish-style lamb doner kebabs and lamb burgers occupy center stage at the Olive Room, and when the gods are smiling, Spiliadis roasts lamb on a spit on the Olive Room's balcony. When we visited, It was spritzing outside, and the spit wasn't turning. Cruel Zeus.
If the Black Olive evokes, in scale and design, a neighborhood Greek taverna, the Olive Room strikes a contemporary pose, and you might be tempted to describe the rectangular, high-ceilinged space as industrial, if it you weren't basking in its radiant warmth. Intense splashes of color pop from fresh flowers and from the striking, large-scale paintings that have been hung with a curator's eye. Diners look good in the space, the way that people at their ease in an orderly universe should.
At once, it feels formal and friendly, and the menu manages to be a paragon of order and an appeal to romance. Individual dishes achieve a pleasing balance, too, between the austere and the indulgent. There's a rustic elegance at work here, which makes a comforting appetizer like lobster saganaki seem sophisticated and a plate of delicately fried zucchini, eggplant and Greek cheeses feel like hearty peasant fare.
The menu is a tribute to rational planning and organization. Twenty or so entrees are divided up coherently into sections named From the Greek Mountains, From the Greek Valley and From the Sea. Ordering an entree becomes a simple matter of knowing what you're hungry for, and the same holds true for the appetizers, which have been pared down to a simple dozen, and the salads, which number four.
The saganaki, with its melting warmth and tender hunks of succulent lobster, is a knockout of an appetizer. You may forget, after scooping the savory cheese with warm, fresh pita slices, how you came to be at the Olive Room, or where you parked your car. To cushion its narcotizing effect, order an uplifting palate arouser -- a plate of minimally breaded and gently fried zucchini, eggplant and salty kefalograviera cheese. An appetizer of grilled scallops and artichoke hearts, served with a nest of katalfi, or shredded wheat, shows a kitchen working with precision and an eye for beauty. This comes through, too, with an appetizer of calamari that has been grilled to a beautiful opaqueness and seasoned liberally enough to bring out the squid's flavor.
A souvlaki entree, named the Platter of Four, assembles grilled pieces of juicy pork, lamb, filet mignon and chicken, accompanied by tzatziki sauce and the lovely, dill-scented, chopped romaine salad that shows up throughout the evening. Fresh tomatoes are mentioned on the menu, but the Olive Room knows that the time for fresh tomatoes has passed and is layering roasted tomatoes on its salads instead.
The Olive Room's grilled lamb chops would win a beauty contest. Marinated in olive oil and herbs before grilling, they'd win an aroma contest, too, and they taste just wonderful. But the kitchen had trouble getting them to the requested shade of pink, first over- and then undercooking them.
Although seafood is not the Olive Room's focus, the kitchen does offer, alongside a few other seafood entrees, kebabs of fresh fish, which when we visited was swordfish. Mellow, succulent and light, the fish was a nice break from the meat dishes.
Dessert is less an afterthought than an anticlimax. The selections are reasonable — a fresh-fruit plate, Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts, baklava and baklava ice cream — but a bit of flair, after a dinner of subdued pleasures, would be welcome.
The bar is stocked with organic spirits — in other words, your regular gin may not be here. And the wine list, in the capable hands of Stelios' son, Dmitri, runs impressively deep, with a long list of organic bottles. Know that a simple gin martini is $14.
An evening at the Olive Room, like at its parent restaurant, can turn out to be more expensive than you saw coming. But the Olive Room has brought a touch of glamour to Fells Point. If the stars align, you might swoon, even before the check arrives.
The Inn at the Black Olive has been praised for making environmentally conscious design feel luxurious. A recent New York Times review noted the "mind-boggling" size of the bedrooms and the showers, "which could comfortably fit six." The Olive Room, the hotel's jewel, performs a complementary balancing act. Without apparent effort, the Olive Room reconciles the modern and the classical, the heart and the head.
The Olive Room
Where: 803 S. Caroline St., Fells Point
Contact: 443-681-6316, http://www.theblackolive.com
Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$21; entrees, $15-$48
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]
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