September 23, 2004

Finger Lake'n Good

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People have been asking me when I was going to review Olivia, if I had been there, and what did I think? Well, let me answer one of you’re questions with another question: what do you get when you cross food reminiscent of the Heights with a la carte service found at John Thomas? No, not another Tapas place — you get the newest Ithaca eatery, Olivia Restaurant, located in East Hill, where Coyote Loco used to serve fajitas and stiff margaritas. Olivia, which comes from the same people that run Stella’s, is Ithaca’s version of a trendy, progressive eatery found in Lower Manhattan. When I heard that this place brought something different to Ithaca, I had to see for myself.

The restaurant splits into a main dining area and, up a few steps, the bar and some smaller tables. The ceilings are high and the tables, floor, and one of the walls are wood. The other wall in the main dining area is a bright shade of orange, which seems out of place when viewed against the red walls around the bar area. The rooms were nicely lit, and the floor felt inviting, with a long bench on one side, and a large table for parties on the other. Soft, mellow club music fills some of the empty space of the main room. Sometimes, I felt a little overwhelmed by the hanging light bulbs that hover above the big table, even though I was on the other side of the room. Light bulbs aside, I liked the way the owners brought the similar feel of Stella’s to their new venue.

A young, attractive staff is poised to ensure that you fully understand exactly how their menu is a bit different from what you’re used to — you are encouraged to share and get side dishes, aka, a la carte, which, according to them, provides a communal, “sharing is caring” kind of meal. From what I gathered, I think it’s just a nice way of telling you that unless you want to leave hungry, you should probably spend a lot of money. My friend and I sampled the “nachos” ($9), which did surprise me. Instead of a huge, messy plate with cheese and beans everywhere, six chips topped with white beans, tasty lamb bits, tomato, and goat cheese arrived like hors d’heurves. The chips were crispy and not too thick. The lamb, tomato, and goat cheese worked as distinct layers of flavor, but too much white bean was piled on each chip.

The dishes I sampled seemed tasty and reasonably priced on paper — all around $20. But since the menu is a la carte, side dishes cost you an extra $4-6. The braised lamb shanks with roasted beets ($20) sounded like the most appealing dish on the menu. But the shanks had little edible meat, and the only beets I saw were tiny cubes scattered around in a pool of beet jus. The lamb was cooked well, but tasted more steamed than braised. The sirloin strip ($19) was satisfying, although the “ginger peach jus” that sat on the bottom, did not add much. Again, the plate was not filling enough to wear such a price. They have a few seafood dishes, like tuna skewers in a mango “reduction” (the most overused word on menus) and grape tomatoes, which was also $19. The sweet tuna, served in a pita (no extra charge), tasted like a sophisticated kebab. There are a few inexpensive sandwiches and a burger, which cost around $9-12.

The desserts were hit and miss also — deep fried, chocolate dumplings ($7), came out half warm, and tasted like nothing more than crispy Chinese noodles dipped in chocolate. The raspberry coulis played no part in the dish because it sat on the bottom of the bowl and did not even touch most of the dumplings. The white chocolate-orange Cr