Elaia and Olio
A cool culinary adventure awaits at these sister venues.
A whimsical mobile of forks and knives hangs just inside Elaia, hidden from view until you’re almost under it. It’s a visual metaphor for the restaurant itself, tucked away in a rehabbed Botanical Heights house. Very few customers will stumble upon Elaia or its sister wine bar, Olio, at the corner of Tower Grove and McRee avenues. Instead, these charming eateries will be a destination for those who have heard about the venues and their owner, Chef Ben Poremba.
Poremba’s ambitious menus lean toward Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, sometimes in unexpected combinations. The sweetest example of these is Elaia’s panna cotta—an Italian custard that sneaks in pureed parsnips under a light disguise of nutmeg.
Given the location and the culinary influences, it’s not surprising that the wine lists also challenge some assumptions. One of these is that half bottles are for lightweights—here, they’re offered as an educational opportunity, and we found them especially nice for couples who would like to try a different wine with each course.
The wine bar side of the business operates out of a renovated gas station. Its two rooms—the counter and the service bay—manage to be both utterly free of grease and completely unrecognizable from their previous incarnation. The casual fare is tailored for sharing: cheese plates, charcuterie, bruschettas, spreads and dips. The only downside to this is that the small tabletops fill up fast, and we found ourselves hesitant to let the servers clear any of the dishes—especially the cauliflower tahini we ordered as an appetizer, but were still nibbling to end the meal. The tiny dices of cauliflower were flecked with even tinier tidbits of carrot, resulting in a crunchy-creamy texture that kept us coming back for more.
The root vegetable soup, its richness enhanced with a poached egg, is perfect for a cold winter day. And it looks good, too, with its little glass lid keeping it warm. The salumi is excellent, as it should be coming from the cured meat company Poremba co-owns, Salume Beddu. But vegetarians have some intriguing options as well, like a salad of tender black lentils dotted with scoops of goat’s milk chèvre. Don’t let the “wine bar” tagline fool you—Olio offers excellent cocktails as well, with a bit of history to go with them.
Although it looks like your average South City brick home on the outside, Elaia is the chic, sophisticated older sister in this restaurant pairing. The menu assumes diners’ familiarity with dishes like brasato (beef braised in red wine) and hiramasa (high-quality yellowtail kingfish), but the staff is happy to explain—no need to google it surreptitiously under the table.
Salsify, an uncommon vegetable, turned out to be one of the highlights of our meal. It was cut into French fry-sized wedges, caramelized and served alongside a veal shank. It popped up in several dishes, along with other root vegetables that were anything but bland: rutabagas in soup, truffles shaved on agnolotti, celery root with sturgeon and turnips with scallops.
Poremba was a frequent presence in Elaia’s dining room, even sitting down in a free chair occasionally to chat. This, combined with the attentive servers’ sincere efforts, bode well for ironing out a few of the kinks that are inevitable in a new restaurant with very high aspirations.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Over the past few years, Poremba has supplied his share of St. Louis restaurants with cured meats from Salume Beddu. The artisan wares are a draw for lunch at the company’s shop on Hampton—but Elaia and Olio are his first solo ventures. Poremba took a gamble on their location, in an area just north of the Missouri Botanical Garden that might not have ever seen a restaurant with price points like Elaia’s.
Another risk is that infant side-by-side venues will each demand all of the restaurateur’s attention to flourish—something Poremba, a new parent himself, can fully appreciate. Yet, he has achieved the synergy that comes with having two popular venues operating smoothly just steps from each other. A hidden treasure, indeed.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Silverberg