Deliciously simple, except for price

Black Olive: Greek taverna offers grilled fish that's the catch of any day, but the check is far glitzier than the surroundings.

Sunday Gourmet

March 31, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The Black Olive is a restaurant critic's restaurant. Baltimoreans, though, continue to have mixed feelings about it.

Critics rave about the simplicity and sophistication of the grilled fish and Greek specialties. But some people want more luxe surroundings and more elaborate service for what it costs to eat there -- which is, admittedly, a lot.

The problem is that until the Black Olive opened five years ago, local diners put Greek food in the cheap eats category. Going to a Greek restaurant where entrees started at $15 (they now start at $22) created a certain amount of sticker shock.

Enough people, though, were willing to pay what it cost to eat at the Black Olive so that owner Stelios Spiliadis and his family decided to expand into the building next door. With the recently completed renovations, their intimate restaurant doubled in size.

The Black Olive is an idealized version of a Greek taverna, with a sort of faux rustic look created by exposed brick, white walls, hardwood floors and tile. The new dining room is dominated by a handsome bar, but no smoking is allowed there or anywhere in the restaurant. The tables, covered in blue-and-white-checked cloths, are generously sized and spaced comfortably apart.

The specialty is grilled fish, some quite unusual, and part of the process of eating here is to have a tour of the choices laid out on ice. This is simply too much work for me. When I'm seated at a restaurant I like to stay seated. The arrangement also doesn't work very well if the Black Olive is crowded. You end up getting all the problems of, say, a crowded museum tour -- like waiting around while the other people ask stupid questions. (Your questions are never stupid, of course.) My advice is not to budge and to ask the waiter simply to tell you what fish are available.

Some of the larger fish, like the wild turbot, are grilled for two. Others, like a smaller but meaty bronzini, are available for one, while still others -- Dover sole, this evening -- are too delicate to grill and are sauteed. Both cooking methods are simple and work only if the fish is impeccably fresh. Then the succulent fish whispers of olive oil, lemon and smoky charred flavor. At the Black Olive there are no rich sauces to disguise any imperfections. The waiter will ladle on a concoction of olive oil, lemon juice and capers if you want something more.

The waiter bones the whole fish at the table, placing the fillets on plates arranged, the evening we were there, with fresh asparagus and mashed sweet potatoes -- an unexpected and terrific combination of tastes and colors. The Black Olive uses organic produce and ingredients whenever possible.

If you're not interested in whole fish, a grilled kebob of thick chunks of swordfish and mammoth shrimp is just as fine. There are also a few lamb and beef dishes and a couple of vegetarian choices.

Probably the most impressive entree is a Greek version of bouillabaisse, with a rich seafood broth artistically arranged with very fresh fish and shellfish. At its center is a langoustine -- a cross between lobster and shrimp that provides fabulous visual interest but is a little mushy.

Dinner at the Black Olive begins with a small bowl of seasoned olives and crusty, herb-scented bread. Appetizers range from a classic spring soup that is pure cream and tender asparagus to stuffed calamari. The fork-tender tube of squid, charcoal grilled, is filled with a creamy white Greek cheese called manouri.

Simple is always the way to go at the Black Olive, like the slightly charred portobello mushrooms grilled with bread. A savory bread pudding with leeks, mushrooms, Greek cheeses and bits of artichoke has a good flavor but at $12 is prohibitively expensive.

The Black Olive from the beginning has understood desserts in a way that few Greek restaurants do. There is cut-up fresh fruit, including mango, which you can have with or without yogurt, honey and walnuts. (I recommend with.) There is baklava, of course, a tiny piece so rich it's more than enough. There's even a nod to American desserts with a moist, freshly baked carrot cake. Best of all, though, are the Black Olive's own delicate ice creams and sorbets. Don't miss the banana.

A meal at the Black Olive is an extravagance. It has all the ingredients that make up a fine Greek restaurant -- almost flawlessly prepared dishes, interesting wines from Greece to complement the food, a good-natured host. But for many people, its beautifully executed simplicity simply won't be worth the cost.

THE BLACK OLIVE

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 814 S. Bond St.

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$18; main courses, $22-$36

Call: 410-276-7141

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*

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