I'm as guilty as anyone: I gravitate to the shiny new restaurant of the month. But I was reminded recently of a gastronomic treasure in our midst after a visit to The Black Olive in Fells Point.
The upscale fish tavern, operated by the Spiliadis family, has been serving diners since 1997. (I once saw food personality and chef Mario Batali going there.) It was one of the first white-tablecloth restaurants in the neighborhood and was known for its gorgeous fresh-fish display before others copied it in their restaurants.
The good news is that nothing much has changed at the restaurant, where executive chef and matriarch Pauline Spiliadis has kept the menu steeped in simple Greek cooking traditions — quality produce, superior olive oil and preparations without a lot of heavy sauces or accompaniments.
The Spiliadises — including Pauline's husband, Stelios, and son Dimitris — are pouring more energy and effort than ever into The Black Olive. They recently had to relinquish their nearby boutique hotel, The Inn at the Black Olive, and its restaurant after financial difficulties.
Dimitris Spiliadis has boosted the restaurant's excellent wine cellar with bottles from sustainable, organic and biodynamic producers from around the world. There are also decades-old offerings for the serious imbiber. A rustic wood table in the quaint basement serves as a gathering place for oenophiles.
The small first-floor bar serves fine cocktails, including cucumber mojitos, raspberry Bellinis and iced Irish whiskeys.
Besides the main brick dining room, the twin townhouse building dating to the 1790s offers other intimate dining areas, including a white-brick space and a cozy room in the back.
In season, an outdoor deck is covered with a grape arbor and overlooks a garden. You will feel transported to another land.
The restaurant seats about 60 people, and the ambiance is warm and intimate, even on the busiest nights.
At first, the food almost seems folksy. Then you bite into a seemingly everyday piece of calamari and are shaken out of complacency with a complexity of exquisite flavors. The sweet, mild squid is puffed with creamy manouri and feta cheeses and grilled, adding a subtle layer of smokiness. One bite is heaven.
But before you get to small plates like the calamari, you're enticed with an amuse bouche. On a recent day, it was a piquant cheese spread on a crunchy cucumber slice. The teasing bite promised an interesting meal.
The baked-in-house bread was another indication of the good food ahead. It was pleasantly chewy and served with a dish of seasoned, perfumed olive oil.
Then it was time for the fish show. You can choose whether you'd like to walk over to the seafood display near the kitchen or stay in place. To me, the only choice is to visit the display. Over the years, I have found that I appreciate the recitation of each fish's merits and its preparation.
Tucked back into our seats in the front dining room after the tour, we continued our meal with a glorious grilled octopus salad. The seafood was pounded to tenderness, marinated and grilled before being tossed with red onions and capers.
We ordered an indulgent and fabulous scallop appetizer after seeing the impressive milky raw mollusks on ice. The four bronze jumbo sea scallops were gently grilled and placed on a nest of soft baby greens for an impressive dish.
One of the best reasons — and there are many — to go to The Black Olive is the filleting of a whole fish tableside. I ordered the dorade royale, a Mediterranean species, and was rewarded with a flaky white fish after it was impressively deboned by our waitress. It was paired with fat spring asparagus.
The grilled rockfish, a fillet of the day, was another prime specimen — thick, juicy and sumptuous. The seafood kabob was a wonder, with skewered hunks of fish, shrimp and scallops.
Lovely offerings await meat lovers, too, including the lamb kleftiko. It was a boring-looking brown dish with no vegetable accompaniment — but, wow, was it delicious. Cubes of lamb were bundled and baked in parchment paper with lemon, kefalograviera (a mellow, nutty Greek cheese) and various herbs, and joined with a lush couscous.
Desserts include the usual suspects, like a delicate, enticing baklava and a quite good house-made baklava ice cream.
By now, we had succumbed to the Spiliadises' mission to turn supposedly ordinary foods into something special. There is nothing better, or more evocative, than the restaurant's stellar Greek yogurt with honey, walnuts, strawberries and blueberries.
The Black Olive delivers a polished, inspired dining experience that deserves recognition. Don't miss this stalwart gem.