A Peek Inside Todd English's Wild Olives

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C. Stiles
You have to hand it to Todd English: the dude knows an easy mark when he sees one. That mark, of course, would be South Florida, now home to three of English's restaurants, each having opened within the past year or so. Two more are on their way 2010. Perhaps with all the ponzi scheming going on in SoFla recently, English and his financiers took a look at this golden land of opportunity and thought, "Ah ha. Now that's what we call discretionary income."

Either way, English's latest opening -- Wild Olives in Boca Raton -- has been churning along for over a month, drawing crowds and making headlines in the process. While it's not quite ready for a prime time review, we thought we'd head into English's new Boca restaurant and find out just how it's faring so far.

Wild Olives is a take on English's premier restaurant, Olives, which he opened in Boston in 1989. The restaurant debuted in November in the old Opus 5 spot in Boca Raton's Shops at Boca Center near the Town Center Mall. Lirim Jacobi, creator of the Taverna Opa franchise and partner to English on a number of South Florida ventures, partnered with English in Wild Olive's opening.

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C. Stiles
Though Opus 5 was renowned for its well-designed interior, the space received an overhaul in its conversion to Wild Olives. The room is elegant and modern, with a multicolored, back lit bar that stretches all the way up to the high ceilings. There's seating outside, where the din of nearby restaurants Casa D'Angelo and Rocco's Tacos tends to overshadow the sultry ambient tunes Wild Olives sets to a low drone. The facade is marked with a broad, double glass door, and just inside the restaurant is cut in two by a high glass divider behind the reservation desk. The far wall across from the bar is lined with circular leather booths and high mirrors, which lead all the way back to a private room shrouded with sheer curtains and a stunning wine rack that spans the north wall. It's a gorgeous restaurant, all told, perfect for romantic interludes or business dates.

We noted in early 2009 in our review of da Campo Osteria, English's Fort Lauderdale restaurant in the Il Lugano Hotel, that service was not quite up to snuff. Sadly, the service at Wild Olives (at least in these early days) mirrors da Campo exactly. The restaurant staff, all black-draped waitrons mostly in their early twenties, seem confused and lost as they scrambled around the dining room. Though we were plenty of tables available on the night we visited, the hostess informed us it would be about a twenty minute wait. As if on queue, the restaurant's co-owner John Watson stepped up to the reservation desk and told the hostess to seat us immediately. (Note: I don't think I was marked as a critic) We took a seat at one of the large banquettes and were told someone would be with us shortly.

If only that were the case. After a few minutes of waiting to be helped, the restaurant's manager came over and informed us he didn't know who would be taking care of us yet, but he would find out right away. He took our wine order and sped off. We waited another 15 minutes or so before our waiter appeared with our wines, a glass of 2008 La Mura Rosso organic red ($8) and La Mura Bianco organic white ($8) the manger had recommended. I wasn't very happy with either -- we later switched to a 2006 reserve malbec from Terrazas de los Andes that was much better balanced.

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C. Stiles
When our waiter finally did show up he took our entire order and disappeared, only to be replaced by another waiter who said he, not the first guy, would actually be helping us. From there thing went more smoothly, although we did have to request bread (other tables around us had some while we did not) and ask multiple times for refills of water and additional plates and silverware.

What we ate was also a bit flawed. A Boston bibb lettuce salad (pictured at top) was fabulously presented, with a emerald mound of lettuce dusted with blue cheese, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette ($12). But is was also rather oily and overdressed, bogging down the once-crisp lettuce and masking the very conservative serving of cheese and nuts.

A tray of four carpet bagger oysters ($16) is one of Olives' signature dishes. Unfortunately, the fried oysters -- reshelled, dolloped with mashed potatoes, and wrapped in a thin strip of beef carpaccio -- were on the bland side. The temperature differences between the lukewarm raw beef, the tepid potatoes, and the hot oyster were a little off-putting as well. Another English specialty, a fig and prosciutto flatbread pizza ($16), exercised no restraint at all. It's loud mess of saccharine-sweet figs, heavy Gorgonzola cheese, and salty, dried out ham became too much after a slice or two.

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C. Stiles
There were some successes, though: Pan-seared grouper with lobster polenta was well-executed and presented ($28). The fish, cooked just until the flesh flaked slightly, was well-seasoned and paired well with a green pea sauce spooned to the side, while the polenta was rich and buttery and gently infused with the sweet aroma of Maine lobster. For dessert, a bowl of house-baked walnut and chocolate chip cookies with freshly-made vanilla bean ice cream was heavenly ($9), a perfect rendition of milk and cookies gone adult. 

It's obvious Wild Olives has some kinks to work out, particularly in the area of service. The prices as well are a bit on the high side -- $12 for Boston lettuce and a smattering of nuts is about as Boca as it gets. Still, Wild Olives shows some promise, and if it can improve on its flaws the romantic restaurant could become English's South Florida cash cow.


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