When we asked our server at Olive Branch to recommend a few dishes, he said he couldn't afford the food, even with his 25 percent employee discount, and therefore couldn't suggest anything. Like the other servers, he usually eats chicken tenders, he told us.
Clearly, this was way more information than we needed.
But if you're reading this, Mr. Server, I have good news. After working my way through pastas in gooey sauces, steaks wrapped in bacon, and dry desserts that had recently emerged from a freezer, the chicken tenders sound downright inviting. Maybe the chefs don't get to taste the food, either.
Olive Branch, which opened three years ago next to a Ramada Inn on Reisterstown Road, is not part of a chain, though it's similar to the ubiquitous Olive Garden, right down to the unlimited salad and bread sticks.
The menu, too, is similar, emphasizing Italian classics such as shrimp scampi, chicken parm and baked manicotti. But Olive Branch is positioned as slightly higher end than the chain, with ingredients such as filet mignon, veal and lobster tail that qualify as special-occasion fare.
Owner Misono Hosaka described her restaurant as somewhere between fine dining and casual, a family restaurant that's suitable for special occasions.
However, the tattered paper menus and the lackluster service, not to mention the heavy food and the uncharismatic surroundings, make this an unlikely choice for a big night out.
Still, on a recent Saturday night, the room was jampacked, and most patrons looked happy. Maybe it's popular because the prices are fairly reasonable, especially given the quantity of the food. Or maybe it's because patrons can order any wine by the glass from a fairly extensive list.
The salad and bread sticks are served family-style, in large bowls. The bread sticks were warm, but the oil brushed on top made them too greasy. The salad, with a tart, ranch-style dressing, was a pleasant mix of greens, tomatoes, red onion slices and croutons.
From there, things went downhill. The bulk load of garlic and oil in the shrimp scampi and in an appetizer of mussels in garlic and wine sauce extinguished any pleasure in eating them. The seafood in both dishes was serviceable, nothing more.
A crab dip appetizer was similar to a cream soup, with fat chunks of lump crab and artichokes swimming in a white broth. It didn't taste bad, but it arrived with sliced bread that simply wasn't substantial enough to lift the goo.
A manicotti that was supposed to be covered in spinach Alfredo sauce was covered, all right, but the spinach was hard to find.
And yet, there were glimmers of hope. The lump crab in the oysters stuffed with crab imperial was incredibly sweet under all that sauce. And the filet mignon could have been a contender, if only it had arrived medium rare instead of still-mooing rare, and if only it hadn't been wrapped in bacon, which was simply overkill.
The least enjoyable dish I sampled was Seafood Antonio, a bowl of linguine and seafood in a garlicky wine sauce. It was impressive-looking, with its mix of mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp, all topped by a lobster tail. But the lobster was so overcooked it was the consistency of a chew toy, and the rest of the seafood was not substantially better.
Maybe the crowds were keeping our server busy, or maybe he was in the kitchen eating chicken tenders, but he never seemed to be around when we needed him. A glass of wine ordered early in the meal didn't arrive until almost the end.
Though the menu promises desserts are "made fresh on the premises," our tiramisu and strawberry cake were both dry and tasted of freezer. A cannoli, on the other hand, was the best thing we ate that night, with a crisp shell and creamy sweet filling.
A few days after our meal, a friend told me she'd heard the crab cakes at Olive Branch are pretty good. Now, why didn't our server tell us that?
Where: 1721 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $7.50-$9.95, entrees $8.95-$21.95