October 20, 2005

Concept Versus Convenience

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Imagine diving into a bowl of velvety black bean soup, drizzled with a hint of cool sour cream and tangy lime juice. Such was my first bite at Olivia, a self-defined “American Bistro,” tucked away on East Hill. I have anxiously awaited the opportunity to try this restaurant from the moment it opened in August 2004. Its website crafted a seemingly superb dining experience – how could a modern, comfortable atmosphere paired with creative menu offerings go wrong? My single taste of soup was flawless – did the rest of the meal match up?

The restaurant itself is housed in an old train station and most recently replaces the southwestern-themed Coyote Loco. A self-declared “warm, urban space,” the atmosphere at Olivia is pronouncedly trendy and modern. Furnishings are bare and place settings are simple. The surroundings exude a sharp, angular feel – the tables are all either square or rectangular, and the space itself is one long rectangular room. Admittedly, the mood was slightly strange. The breezy, open space and close-set tables seemed to encourage a chatty, raucous dinner crowd. However, the trendy, modern presentation of the dishes and quality of the wait staff led to the impression of a cozier, private dining experience. To be honest, these two clashing elements resulted in an awkward meal: my loud voice echoed throughout the long, airy restaurant as other diners ate in near silence.

The food at Olivia is crafted with care – the kitchen presents each dish, from appetizer to dessert, with a subtle flourish. My black bean soup appetizer was artfully decorated with lime sour cream, reminiscent of latte art designs. My friend’s grilled shrimp appetizer was nestled atop a bed of jicama and papaya slaw. However, as we progressed to the main course, this artful presentation turned the meal into a cumbersome, rather than pleasing, experience. The duck entree was served over an incredibly soft, buttery polenta. Yet the duck was served on the bone – in such a trendy environment, it feels a bit awkward to pick up a piece of meat and gnaw at a bone a la barbeque. In the case of my pan roasted salmon, presentation once again outweighed flavor. The salmon was served atop a bed of arugula and spiced couscous and surrounded with garam masala. The salmon itself had a fabulously moist texture and delicate flavor. However, the spiced couscous lacked flavor and presence, as did the garam masala zucchini.

Dessert serves as the crowing jewel at any meal, and Olivia, once again, wins marks for originality but falters in quality. I ordered a white chocolate bread pudding that was served with, instead of the traditional ice cream, a scoop of mascarpone cheese. Interesting concept, except mascarpone cheese should serve as a dessert itself rather than as a complement to bread pudding. Both mascarpone and bread pudding are incredibly heavy – satisfying complements to bread pudding are light and moist. Personally, I would stick to serving bread pudding warm with a side of ice cream: creativity can be left to the selection of ice cream flavor.

Overall, in both ambiance and cuisine, Olivia gets mixed reviews. The restaurant emphasizes a contemporary space, but the modern vibe contrasts too much with the reality of the Ithaca setting. The food itself was artfully presented but hit short of perfection: complexity of flavor and texture are my top priorities, and there are other restaurants in Ithaca that more closely align with my admittedly high culinary expectations. However, the owners of Olivia have mastered the art of promotions. “Happiness,” or happy hour, hits each day from 4 – 6 p.m, and drink specials abound throughout the week. Sunday is by far the best day of the week to dine at Olivia – the restaurant features a three-course price fixed menu for $18 (an incredible deal, considering appetizers run $8 – 10 each). Beware hearty eaters: the portions of this weekly price fixed menu are about half the size of the normal menu. If you want to try this new trendy hot-spot, catch a $5 O-burger after the Saturday football game or a discounted martini after class. Any more of an initial investment, and you might be disappointed.

Archived article by Anna Fishman
Sun Staff Writer