This is the Dorade Royale, prepared grilled, at The Black Olive… (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore…)
The Stelios family opened the Black Olive in 1997. With its emphasis on fresh fish, it was not only unlike any Greek restaurant of its time, it virtually invented its own category of dining in Baltimore.
Think of when that was in our restaurant history: The Black Olive was the first restaurant I knew of here to tell a story to its customers about how the food they were eating got there - which ocean it was fished from, and when. Back in 1997, what did the people who came to this Fells Point taverna, dressed in the short tuxedos and beaded evening gowns of that era, think the first time a waiter offered to escort them through the cramped but cozy dining room to the iced display of that evening's fish - "Look, Mildred, it's Mr. Webb, my fourth-form adviser"?
Over the years, I've been to the Black Olive for lunch a few times but only once for dinner, 10 years ago, when I was taken there for a birthday, a big one, and I remember more than anything about that wonderful dinner the look on my friends' faces when they saw the check. Today, the Black Olive is double its original size and has plenty of company in the good-restaurant category, where serious talk about good sourcing is commonplace.
What remains in place is how essentially satisfying an evening at the Black Olive can be. Not just the fish but everything is patently fresh and well-prepared, and it's supported by an intimate, comfortable and uplifting atmosphere. Yet a meal here still feels very expensive, more so, I think, than other restaurants in its price range, and it does so because of how simple everything is. The food does its job quietly, without much fanfare or adornment or even much evidence of a chef having worked on it. It's the best thing about the Black Olive, and only occasionally do you wish for something more, something wild or new.
But don't change the bread. A dish of kalamata olives and basket of the unbeatable olive bread come quickly to the table, and you suddenly remember how much delicious bread once mattered in restaurants. The wine list is obviously a production of restaurateurs who love good wine, and it's worth taking your time with and asking about. We were given good advice.
Aside from a crab cake and savory pudding made from that olive bread and portobello mushrooms, the appetizers are Mediterranean classics. They just taste better here. Calamari, stuffed with manouri and feta cheese, and then lightly grilled, is an exemplary Black Olive dish; minimally garnished and seasoned, it is simple in conception, perfect in execution and absolutely delicious. Grilled sardines, wrapped in grape leaves, are another appetizer like this, a dish that only makes an impact if it's perfectly executed with absolutely fresh ingredients. And they are, and you could eat a hundred of them and want more. It was the crinkly slices of pan-seared zucchini served alongside grilled traditional cheeses from Greece and Cyprus that made a saganaki plate memorable.
Grilled octopus, tossed with capers and onions, is less captivating than these - good, tender and delicious, yes, but I wanted more from it. And even a spread as good as the Black Olive's whipped version needs something to spread it on beside whatever bread is left in the basket. When we asked, we were thoughtfully offered slices of cool cucumber to put it on, which turned out to be the perfect thing. The thing is, I wanted the restaurant to think of it first.
There are other entrees on the menu beside the signature fish, prepared whole, filleted at the table and served with an olive-lemon sauce. Among other things, there are crab cakes, small and large fillets of prime beef, and charcoal-grilled racks of lamb, grilled sea scallops, and shrimp. An aromatic rack of lamb/shrimp combination works beautifully. The lamb is rosy, meaty and springy, and the shrimp are firm and fresh-tasting, and they work so nicely with the day's vegetable, roasted cauliflower - organic, like all of the produce here.
The restaurant still talks about the relationships it maintains with individual fishermen that supply them. The display is still impressive. From it, we chose red snapper and Dover sole. With its slight assertiveness, the snapper made for slightly better, more robust company than the Dover sole, a top-of-the-line offering that, in its own perfect way, is a little aloof, like a Hitchcock blonde. I almost wish we had been talked out of it and talked into one of the friendly Mediterranean fishes instead - the barbouni, or the dorade royale.
The best desserts here are simple, too, like yogurt topped with walnuts and thyme-laced honey; or an in-house creation, baklava ice cream, not too sweet and filled with crunchy little pieces of shredded wheat; or a dense carrot cake, filled with walnuts and raisins, its cream-cheese frosting flecked with coconut.
Progress continues on the nearly adjacent Inn at the Black Olive, the Stelioses' long-anticipated, super-green hotel project, said to include a ground-floor market and a rooftop cafe. I'm interested.
The Black Olive Where:
814 S. Bond St., Fells Point
Open: Daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: MC, VISA, AMEX
Food: *** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
Ambience: *** 1/2
[Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *]