The only serious reservation about the Olive Room is the room
Published: December 7, 2011
803 S. Caroline St.,  681-6316, theblackolive.com/inn/olive_room.html
More at weekly.citypaper.com
Do hamburgers taste better in dives than in dining rooms? Do martinis shimmer colder at steakhouses? Must fine dining mean fancy decor as well? A visit to the Olive Room, the rooftop restaurant at the eco-friendly Inn at the Black Olive, prompts these kinds of questions, better translated as: How much does atmosphere count?
The food at the Olive Room is top rate, with an emphasis on Turkish and Greek preparations, lamb and pork, and the simple, gracefully prepared seafood patrons have come to know from the Black Olive, the Spiliadis family’s first restaurant venture on nearby Bond Street. The imam baildi ($16), an eggplant dish whose name commonly translates as “the priest fainted,” is garlicky and rich enough to induce swooning (as is the beautifully curated organic wine list), and the view looking west to Harbor East and the Inner Harbor becomes a sparkling treat in the evening.
But frustratingly, the aesthetics of the Olive Room feel at odds with the seamlessness of the food. Two walls of windows and a painted concrete floor that swallows up sound give the room the base for its modern, industrial look, but despite some warmth brought by buttercream-colored walls and oversized oil paintings, “institutional” feels like a better descriptor. The small bar (serving only organic beer, wine, and spirits) area with a compact cold case and lighting that suggests a gourmet deli in one corner of the room, a refrigerator-sized wine cooler near the entrance, and a table piled with napkins and water pitchers near the distractingly bright open kitchen at the south end add to the disjuncture. Granted, the room is part of an inn and used for breakfast and lunch as well as dinner, and warm weather and the ability to dine on the open terrace will undoubtedly change the whole tenor of the space, but during winter, the room feels oddly informal and unresolved even after six months of operation.
Will this be a big deal to all diners? Possibly not. Indeed, our table was divided, with one person saying they would return to eat at the restaurant without qualms, one pleading indecision, and two declaring that the meal in this dining room was good (and expensive) enough to make them seek out the original Black Olive, whose menu is surely a template for the inn’s dining room.
As with the Black Olive, the food at the Olive Room is based on high-quality ingredients prepared elegantly and without fussiness in order to show off their essence to the best advantage. With the exception of salads, most dishes—from a plate of red peppers to mixed seafood appetizer ($10) napped in olive oil with a scattering of red onion and capers to kebabs and chops—are grilled. There are also decided excesses, however, in the form of lobster saganaki, a dish of fried eggplant, zucchini, and Kefalograviera cheese, and a more-is-more plate of Greek spreads ($12). Although it is nearly impossible, go easy dipping the za’atar-burnished pita into pinkish taramasalata, rich with fish roe; creamy tzatziki; and slightly smoky melitzanasalata, akin to baba ghanouj (the plate also boasts hummus, feta, olives, pepper slivers, and cucumber to make you feel more virtuous). The spreads are richer than rich (trust me on this), and besides, you want to save room for your entree.
Main courses are divided up regionally on the menu, with meats falling under the heading “From the Greek Mountains,” vegetarian choices such as the imam baildi and another eggplant casserole under “From the Greek Valley,” and four seafood choices—a salmon au poivre, grilled scallops, shrimp, and rockfish kebabs, this evening replaced by a very basic but very fresh halibut fillet (upon request, $30-$38)—labeled simply “Under the Sea.” Lamb is a star here, showing up spit-roasted (when available), in a burger, as kebabs, and as exquisite, petite lamb chops, blush pink and nearly fork-tender ($30). The light marinade only enhances their lovely mildness, and while they are not a bargain, if you love lamb, you will love these.
The platter of four ($24) was designed for the indecisive. And while you could order ribeye or porterhouse steak, chicken or pork chops, here you can try beef, pork, chicken, and lamb, soulakia style, with pita, the refreshing, lemony romaine salad, and vegetable of the day (that evening, asparagus served cold with a lovely dill dressing) that comes with all meals. The chicken kebab was the most appealing—plump and not overcooked—but I wouldn’t hesitate to try the pork chops next time either. Whether out of habit or because our server mentioned couscous as an accompaniment for one of the specials, I did find myself looking for a little starch on my plate (the imam baildi comes with sweet potato wedges, an unusual pairing), and given the prices and the simplicity of the dishes, it wouldn’t be amiss to include a grain.
Desserts include house-made ice creams and sorbet, as well as a serviceable baklava ($6) and a nicely tart house-made yogurt, drizzled with honey and walnuts ($8). Try them both with Zeke’s coffee ($3), sweet and grainy.
A quick note about service, which while kind, has yet to find its footing, be it remembering to return to pour wine for the table or simply checking during service to answer any questions. That said, the genial presence of owner Stelios Spiliadis in the dining room is welcome, and his inquiry into diners’ experiences as he visits each table feels genuine.
The Olive Room has lots to offer—from the organic bar to its lovely food and spectacular view—yet I left with mixed feelings. It’s not an inexpensive evening, nor is it a seamless one, and the food deserves better. With just a few tweaks here and there, this can be a go-to spot even before the summer breezes blow in.
The Olive Room is open seven days for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (brunch on Sundays).
> Email Mary K. Zajac