Olives Restaurant, Deli, and Lounge
1129 Olympic Way SE
Calgary, AB T2G 0L4
Putting a restaurant in an area under redevelopment is a high risk, high reward proposition. New entrants into the neighbourhood are hoping to be the first to capture the loyalty of the shifting population, resulting in long term, steady, profitable business. However, neighbourhoods don’t always redevelop as planned. Things start and stop. In Calgary, The East Village is a good example of a neighbourhood that hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Restaurants that rushed to get into the area ahead of the curve are paying the price.
Olives, from the Hotel Arts Group, is a trendy, modern restaurant and lounge that is moving in ahead of the curve in the new Arriva building in Victoria Park. With a tremendous number of expensive high density buildings planned for the area, a restaurant featuring “innovative” Italian cuisine seems like the perfect fit. Approachable food that would appeal to the population at large. Based on the limited amount of parking for a 200 seat restaurant, mostly street side, I’m assuming this was not intended to be a “destination” restaurant, but to serve the local community. While the total impact of the financial crisis yet to be determined locally, the situation in Victoria Park is tenuous at best. Will the community of high income patrons ever move into the area? And can they survive with an expansive 200-seat space until it happens? It could, but for me, it would depend on the food.
Upon entering the restaurant, my first thoughts were “impressive”. For me, Olives is a beautiful space. My dining companions found it a touch cold and impersonal, but the modern look combined with a fine attention to the small details works for me. Right down to the tile work in the bathroom and the decorations on the wall, they’ve done a fantastic job of setting up a functional space that pleases. The only drawback is the extremely high ceilings, which do leave the space feeling a bit empty when it is not completely full of patrons.
In terms of the food at Olives, there is a lot to say. First off, the menu is a manageable length, something I definitely applaud them for. Too many restaurants these days have a menu that is difficult for the kitchen to manage – sacrificing quality and efficiency by trying to be all things to all people. They’ve made some concessions from the Italian influence in some of their selections, but it’s an appropriate compromise for a menu that features 9 starters, 5 pastas, and 6 entrees.
Our meal starts with a selection of olives, bread, and olive oil for dipping. The bread and olive oil were satisfactory but not exactly memorable. The olives, however, were a great selection of well-preserved olives at the height of their flavour. In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to mention I’m not an olive fan. Dislike them really. No matter how hard i’ve tried, the tastes are too bitter on my palette. These olives were edible though. In my world, that is something extremely memorable.
We started with the highly recommended grilled squid appetizer($12), served with artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, and a salsa verde. The squid was perfectly cooked, with a nice combination of tender, and bite. However, i wasn’t thrilled with the dish overall. The squid lacked the characteristics that make grilled squid great – a nice smoky char with a light taste of the ocean shining through. It was overdressed in a salsa verde that lacked balance, not enough acidity, and while the artichoke was a great complement, the tomatoes and asparagus added very little to the overall dish. It felt like a salad with squid, when i felt the squid should have shined instead.
Next dish was one of their two flatbreads($12) – Chorizo with roasted red tomato, provolone, and Italian parsley. Well baked, there was a nice blend of ingredients topping a well baked crust. I found it a touch too doughy for my own personal preferences, as I usually like my flatbread to be a bit thinner, but the crust had a nice blistering to it, and a satisfying bite. Well executed. My only complaint was it arrived warm and not hot.
The dish I was most looking forward to was the ravioli ($21). Well-prepared ravioli, while simple to prepare, I find to be very comforting on a chilly day. These ravioli were filled with marscapone and truffle parsnip, served on a bed of asparagus and topped with a wild mushroom cream. Unfortunately, it was the dish that disappointed the most. Once again, the dish arrived a bit cool. The pasta itself was very good – silky, not too thin, but not too thick. I like a little more yellow “richness” to the pasta, but this was more an indication of the quality of the egg yolks rather than the preparation. The filling was conceptually good, but fell short in practice. Creamy smooth texture with a nice hint of truffle oil. The wild mushroom sauce was a bit underwhelming, but the asparagus was good. The issues with the dish were twofold. First, the overall texture was too soft – it was what my friends call “old people food”. A piece of crispy pancetta, or even a fried sage leaf would bring about a bit more contrast. Secondly, the flavours were mild, and to be honest, a bit bland. Parsnip, marscapone, brought very little to the table. Truffle oil, while nice, isn’t the predominant flavour im looking for in a dish. Traditional raviolis where the filling is milder are usually accompanied with a more robust, or brighter sauce. In this case, the wild mushroom sauce fell flat. It did nothing to accentuate the ravioli. Just provided some creamy texture. It was not a poorly executed dish, but I feel poorly conceived – the flavours failed me on this night.
The surprise of the night was the steak ($40). Dry rubbed Black Angus Rib Eye with caramelized shallot and mushrooms, served on a bed of pancetta mashed potatos. Succulent, tender, and perfectly cooked to medium rare, this rib eye was a revelation. Great flavours that accentuated the beef, a fine cut, served on my favorite preparation of mashed potatoes – pancetta, heavily buttered. I like some heavy cream in there too, but only on holidays! This was an excellent steak.
I got to try a piece of halibut ($32) too, and it was very well prepared as well. Moist, nice rich flavour well-basted in butter, without taking away from the flavour of the fish. The size would’ve disappointed me, as it was a small 5-6oz serving, but that’s why I didn’t order it.
We finished with a couple of desserts. The chocolate and pistachio torta with pistachio gelato ($10) was good. Beautiful presentation, the torte had a rich, chocolate flavour that pared well with the pistachio. A touch dense, i enjoyed it nonetheless. The other dessert was a tiramisu ($10), which while I didn’t get to try, was assured was excellent.
In most reviews I’ve read, Olives has been universally lauded. While there are a lot of very good aspects to them, I would not sing their praises as much as other people have. They’ve put together a solid menu, and the kitchen staff do an excellent job of executing on the food. Some of the dishes are a bit conceptually flawed, and the portion sizes can be a touch small. The value was ok, but at these prices, I’d probably rather eat at Divino or Blink. They are, overall, consistently better. However, when you look at the experience on its own merits, I have to say, I enjoyed myself. Service was good albeit a bit slow, the food was well-prepared, and other than a few disappointments, it was a decent experience overall. I probably won’t go out of my way to go back, but I wouldn’t be upset if I found myself in the area and dining there again. The key question is, will the patrons needed to keep them afloat do the same until the Victoria Park revitalization is complete? I’m not sure. I think they have some challenging times ahead.