Where the little things matter

Green Olive offers a pretty respite and fare from the Mediterranean

Sunday Gourmet

October 17, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Walk along the stretch of Cross Street between Light and South Charles and you pass one raucous bar after another. If the weather is good, their windows are flung open and the noise spills out onto the street. Then you come upon -- dare I say it? -- a little oasis in the form of the Green Olive, a new Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant.

It's a pretty little spot, immediately appealing. The restaurant's jazzy interior is contemporary but not stark, broken up with colorful, angular dividers that look like part of a stage set. On the right is a martini bar, on the left, a narrow row of tables. A small area on a dais in back offers refuge from the cheerful bar crowd up front.

Fabric helps quiet things down: Gossamer curtains frame the area in back, and the floors are carpeted. The room is decorated in persimmon, apple green and cream, and one wall is exposed brick, all of which makes the Green Olive a little more inviting than hip new restaurants sometimes are.

The details are taken care of, from the art on the walls -- actually worth looking at -- to the wavy-handled flatware, which mirrors the wavy-edged white plates. It all goes to show that you can have a happening, high-energy eating place that's also cozy and comfortable, with an area for those who want to talk (and be heard).

The Green Olive's menu changes every couple of weeks and includes four sections: Spanish tapas, Middle Eastern mezze, salads and main courses. A lot of the food is very good, but the kitchen needs to pay the same attention to details that the interior designer did. The arugula salad, for instance, started with a generous amount of the pleasantly bitter greens, a little overdressed (but you can always ask for the vinaigrette on the side). Whole almonds and blue cheese added a bit of zip, but the salad's slices of pear should have been riper. Their crunchiness took the whole salad down a notch. On the other hand, a tangy yogurt sauce emphasized the pleasures of grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb and pine nuts. They were just about perfect.

Baba ganoush reeked of garlic, and garlic was all we could taste; the eggplant puree could have been garlic-flavored cardboard for all we knew. Stuffed "wood roasted" peppers tasted more like canned pimentos, and the flavor of the creamy crab filling didn't quite mesh with them.

For once, we fared better with our main courses than our appetizers.

A special of seared scallops, fat little shrimp, and lump crab meat over linguine soared because of its light, creamy white wine sauce. Tuna, grilled with a firm, rare center, played off against a relish of green olives, sun dried tomatoes, feta and pine nuts.

I wouldn't normally order filet mignon at a restaurant like this -- the Mediterranean dishes were so appealing -- but the waiter insisted it was the best thing on the menu and the best deal at $24.99. According to him, the price was going to be raised to $29 soon. The meat was everything he had promised, but it didn't need to be sitting on a large piece of grilled French bread since it had a large scoop of garlic mashed potatoes nestled beside it. The delicate asparagus spears that came with it weren't the bright jewel green they should have been, but a sort of overcooked gray green. Details, details.

Not everything among the main courses is as pricey as the filet and seafood. The kitchen, for instance, transforms fried eggplant into a very credible lasagna by layering it with creamy white fresh mozzarella and marinara. It makes a satisfying, moderately priced dinner with an interesting interplay of textures.

The Green Olive was offering three desserts the night we ate there. Profiteroles filled with white chocolate cherry ice cream and finished with a berry sauce would have been fabulous if the pastry hadn't been soggy. An apple tart needed to be warm, or at least not refrigerator cold. But nothing negative could be said about the chocolate creme brulee, a sort of chocolate mousse with a crackly sugar top.

The staff couldn't be nicer here, but the kitchen needed to get a grip as far as the pacing of the meal was concerned. This was not a very busy night for them. Two of us sat with our appetizers in front of us for too long before the others' arrived. That was OK because we could share them, but the main courses were a different story. First the waiter brought my steak and the pasta. We sat and watched them cool until he finally brought the eggplant lasagna. Then he apologized and said the tuna was going to be a while because it had been overcooked and the kitchen was having to start all over. Awkward.

None of that seemed to be his fault, although he could have brought our main courses all at once when everything was ready. We really couldn't start anyway. He could also have used a little help all through the meal; we just didn't get the attention we needed because he had too many tables to handle as soon as more customers arrived.

Most of my gripes, I imagine, have to do with new restaurant blues. Even as is, the Green Olive is a lively, interesting addition to Federal Hill's restaurant scene. With a little tweaking, it could be a lot more.

Green Olive

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Where: 26 E. Cross St., Federal Hill

Hours: Open for dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$11; Entrees: $16-$24

Call: 410-539-7911

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