West Side Story
The Starbucksian transformation of SoBe's west side is progressing along quite nicely these days. The developers are certainly thrilled -- these people get the same sort of excitement from watching a row of historic houses being razed that a foodie does after stripping all meat from a rack of baby-back ribs. Residents of those hideous high-rises along West Avenue are surely happy -- they can start convincing themselves that they live in something resembling a real neighborhood now. And Hagen Taudt is no doubt delirious with joy as he watches the 59 seats of his new Oliver's Bistro fill day and night with locals pleased to have a place to call their own.
Hagen knows a thing or two about restaurants, having been the proprietor of a couple of popular hot spots -- Charade in the Gables, and Kaleidoscope in the Grove. Give the man credit for his vision, as it was a risk locating Oliver's on a stretch of avenue formerly noted only for being faster to drive down than Alton Road. Add a few more kudos for giving the room just the right light, airy ambiance to make lounging around cozy and relaxing -- very important for a local hangout (the wine and cappuccino bar is an especially cool spot to sit and sip). And Mr. Taudt deserves respect for his willingness to stay on-site and do whatever it takes to help things run smoothly -- a big plus.
So we've got a savvy, hands-on owner opening an extremely pleasant restaurant in one of the few areas of South Beach where natives can dine without feeling as though they're part of some gigantic tour group. Now for the bad news: The food is no better than what you'd find at the tourist traps of Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road, meaning a bland array of Nexxt and News Café-type cuisine that neither impresses nor offends. Don't think bistro -- think diner.
We started with a spinach salad containing mushrooms, red onion, blue cheese crumbles, walnuts, tidbits of bacon, and a dousing of so much warm bacon fat that I suggested to my wife we take the dish to go and use the grease to cook with at home for the next month or two.
Same blue cheese is referred to as "Gorgonzola" when placed in an entrée of grilled fettuccine, grilled scallops, and tomato coulis. This is one of those dishes I feel compelled to order just to see if it can possibly be as bad as it sounds. In fact the trio of thick, juicy scallops was delicious, and just a small portion of the top noodles were grilled -- or, more accurately, crisped, the way the top of a noodle pudding gets if you leave it in the oven too long. Still the dish was curiously bland, even with the sharp cheese -- many dishes here are underseasoned, and herbs are used as plate decoration, not flavoring.
Moist nuggets of decent duck confit were, like the scallops, sabotaged by listless pasta, this time linguine tossed in a "wild mushroom sauce" that contained no wild mushrooms whatsoever, and also no sauce -- they probably meant to say "sautéed white mushrooms." Cherry tomatoes and defrosted green peas added color and nothing else.
Evidently they like to use the word "grilled" here -- a starter of Bahamian seafood cakes was also preceded by that cooking term, though the two crumbly discs never made it near a gridiron. Nicely flecked with crunchy carrot bits, the cakes didn't really have much fish either, and a "tangy tomato remoulade sauce" was anything but -- tasted like watered-down Thousand Island dressing.
"Grilled bananas" around an entrée of red Thai chicken curry were likewise ungrilled. The chicken seemed uncurried, too, though there might have been a dash thrown in -- hard to tell with the sweet, prebought mango chutney that the chicken got tossed in. More problems with a main course of seared "ahi" tuna. You could not expect a larger portion for $15.95, though you certainly could hope to be served a better cut. This one was gristly, and so bright red inside that I believe the fish spent more time in color-enhancing chemical solution than in the ocean. Seriously -- this is what they do to tuna, salmon, and all sorts of seafoods nowadays, as modern culinary science marches on (call Sysco Food Company for details). Atop the hefty fish was mango salsa with pink flecks of pickled ginger mixed in; below a small mound of wasabiless "wasabi mashed potatoes" ("Could it be possible," I asked my wife, "that Donald Rumsfeld wrote this menu?").
I was grateful they didn't attempt to grill the three-cheese risotto. The mix of Asiago, Parmesan, and Brie provided plenty of pungent oomph, but lacked the proper risotto ooze.
So what do I like about Oliver's? The bacon-wrapped meat loaf atop garlicless "garlic smashed potatoes" was quite good, and I appreciated the thin, fresh slices of sautéed squash on the side. A strip of churrasco steak was on the mark, and I would return here any old time for the hamburger, a hand-formed patty exactly the right size in proportion to the bun -- meaning not too skinny, and not too fat (those who believe a great burger is a megameaty one that overwhelms the bread are not true connoisseurs). The tiramisu, sprinkled with amaretti cookie crumbs, is one of the best versions you'll have. The waiters are more professionally trained than one usually finds at such informal eateries, and the entire staff is exceedingly friendly.
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