Something special is happening in the city’s Botanical Heights neighborhood.
Ben Poremba, a young, Israeli-American chef, has cooked up a wine bar, a fine-dining restaurant and a pastry shop at Tower Grove and McRee avenues.
The wine bar, Olio, is a modern nook in an old gas station that is pouring some of the most provocative wines in St. Louis. The food on its small plates is simple enough to satisfy a child yet intriguing enough to entice an epicure.
The restaurant, Elaia, is a study in elegant cuisine. Poremba coaxes the maximum flavor out of ingredients without manipulating them past the point of recognition.
The final element, La Patisserie Chouquette, is reviewed this week in our Cheap Eats column. Pastry chef Simone Faure already seems to have found her sweet spot there.
Olio and Elaia share much of the same DNA, including an address. Olio resides on the ground floor, visible from the street with its garage-style windows, while Elaia is hidden on the second floor of a connected house.
They both showcase Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. (Like eggplant. Always eggplant.)
They’re both swathed in 50 shades of beige; an understated cool that, I’m convinced, was designed to make colors pop on Poremba’s plates. You’ve never seen olive oil this green, beets this red or mango puree this orange.
Olio is the more laid-back of the two, a place where you can snack on hummus and a glass of wine, or build a dinner around cured meats, fresh cheeses and seafood dishes.
Olio’s wine program, and service in general, is phenomenal. Breezy but informative descriptions make picking a glass, bottle or flight enjoyable, especially when your choices include a Madeira tasting or a Lebanese bottle along with California cabs and German rieslings.
Affable servers seem genuinely engaged in keeping you happy. I told one that a Spanish red brought back a taste memory of my honeymoon, and he reacted with palpable joy.
Cheese and charcuterie go beyond run-of-the-mill wine-bar fare. Poremba’s Salume Beddu provides much of the meat, supplemented by heavyweights like Spain’s famed Iberico ham. Olio chef Jay Stringer makes simplicity sing by contrasting the salty creaminess of homemade burrata cheese ($10) with drops of sweet maple.
Two or three items are enough to satisfy one appetite. But it’s more fun to order lots and share. Pick whatever you like; I’ve eaten it all, and it’s all good.
Octopus salad ($12), composed with edamame, fava beans and chickpeas atop a shallow pool of cooling yogurt, is bright in color and bracing in flavor.
Lasagna ($14), Stringer’s Wednesday-night special, is a cube of shredded pork and beef layered amid ribbons of homemade pasta and fresh tomato sauce. At a loss for words, I managed this note on the lasagna: “[Expletive] delicious!”
The experience upstairs at Elaia also can be breathtaking.
Like many Michelin-starred restaurants, Elaia offers an a la carte menu with some larger-plate highlights from its 10-course tasting menu, which is where the magic lies.
Elaia is not cheap — $100 for the grand tasting, $200 with sommelier Andrey Ivanov’s wine pairings — but you certainly get what you pay for.
Elegance is everywhere in Elaia’s intimate dining room, from the poofs of baby’s breath flowers on tables to soft opera playing through speakers.
I’d tell you about everything I ate, but those dishes likely will be gone by the time you get there.
Poremba changes Elaia’s menus daily, pushing his kitchen crew to create different combinations of ingredients and cooking methods.
The tasting menu, a perfectly satisfying progression from light and cold dishes (foie gras parfait) to substantial and hot ones (duck-gizzard confit), is balanced throughout in its portion sizes, timing and whimsical flavors.
Ivanov is animated in his wine descriptions and unfailing in his pairings. His service team upstairs is every bit as polished as Olio's, if not more so.
I smiled when I tasted the cucumber notes Ivanov talked about in a pour of an acidic Italian white made from kerner grapes. An Italian beer brewed with myrrh pulled double duty, complementing the smokiness of a charred-eggplant puree and serving as a segue from red to white wines.
One nit I had at Elaia was a lack of textural elements in dishes. I yearned for a crunch after so many purees and quenelles and sauces.
And then the first of Faure’s desserts arrived: cardamom-spiced rice pudding garnished with a candied rose petal. A crunchy candied rose petal. Had she read my mind?
Elaia’s price tag prevents it from being a regular option for most diners. But its extraordinary food, wine, ambiance and service thrust it into the upper echelon of must-try splurge restaurants.
And for everyday wining and dining, there’s Olio.
Poremba’s corner of Botanical Heights offers something for everyone. Something special, indeed.
Where Olio and Elaia, 1634 Tower Grove Avenue • Four stars out of four • Menu Olio: Spreads, salads, meats, cheeses and daily specials; Elaia: Ten-course tasting menu and a la carte entrees • More info 314-932-1088; oliostl.com, elaiastl.com • Hours Olio: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday; Elaia: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
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