The worst service I've ever encountered came while eating at the famed Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine. The waitress, who looked like a Latin version of Joan Rivers, was an absolute trip. I remember asking her how a particular fillet of snapper was prepared, to which she responded, "Are you a lawyer?" Flustered, I shook my head no. She decided to dig deeper. "Well, then you're Jewish, right?" Luckily, my salad plate was there to catch my jaw. But the real kicker came later. After delivering our entrées, she picked up my friend's fork and knife and proceeded to root through his stuffed pork loin, looking for "the sausage hidden inside."
We laughed about that one for days.
As bad as that particular waitress was, I've never had service as uniformly awkward as what I experienced on multiple visits to Todd English's Wild Olives in Boca Raton. A partnership with local restaurateurs Lirim Jacobi and Dixon Li, the restaurant is one of four eateries the celebrity chef has opened in the past year in South Florida. Although Wild Olives is not fine dining per se, the staff has seemingly been trained to act as stiff-backed and pompous as if they were waiting on King Louis at the Court of Versailles. Yet the actual nuts and bolts of service — seating guests, clearing plates, delivering dishes, filling drinks, answering questions — are so thoroughly botched that it would almost be comical if it weren't your money on the table. It's as though everything the front-of-house staff knows about fine dining it learned from watching reruns of Monty Python.
Wild Olives by Todd English
Wild Olives by Todd English, 5050 Town Center Circle, Ste. 245, Boca Raton. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m. Call 561-544-8000, or click here.
During one visit, our waiter was so awkward and rigid that he completely avoided making eye contact with us throughout our meal. Instead, he addressed my spouse, my friend, and I in the most over-the-top manner possible. "Good evening, lady and gentlemen," he said, moving his right arm around like a conductor as he spoke, "and welcome to Wild Olives by Todd English." His left arm, meanwhile, was clutched tightly against his chest as if it had an imaginary white towel slung over it. The uncomfortable introduction was cut short by a busboy presenting a bottle of wine to our table that we did not order. "Stag zin?" the busboy asked as he showed off the bottle. The waiter looked flummoxed. "No, no, I'll take this." He grabbed the bottle and promptly disappeared for ten minutes.
Upon returning to take our orders, he continued as if nothing had happened. "We'll start with the lady. What will she be enjoying this evening?" The lady, Danielle, paused at the odd phrasing before ordering the butternut squash tortelli, a sort of ravioli dressed with brown butter sage sauce ($22). Immediately, he complimented her selection. "Excellent choice," he said, drawing out the words. "I'm sure you'll agree it's delicious."
As he turned to leave the table, he spun in place, performing some sort of weird pirouette. We half expected him to stop, flip around backward, and ask, "Would the lady like a fork with that, or shall I simply chew it up and feed it to her like a baby sparrow?"
I'm not suggesting that servers should behave only in a certain rigid way. But with an average meal at the restaurant totaling more than $50 per person, I expect some sort of genuineness — at least a sign that you care as much about my presence as you do about my money. Instead, Wild Olive's waiters seem to have gotten it in their heads that good service should be stuffy, pretentious, and, worst of all, performed. And they have no clue how to execute the important stuff.
When we explained to our waiter that we had already had some drinks at the bar and would just like some ice water, he didn't bother to remove our wine glasses (two of which were filthy). Instead, he simply shuffled them around the table to make room as the busboys dropped our appetizers. After we finished those — a lightly fried plate of asparagus frites ($8) and a bowl of creamed and truffled cauliflower soup ($7) — he removed the dishes but not our dirty silverware or small sharing plates.
When he wasn't exalting us with titles, he was stumbling over words, especially when it came to answering questions. When I asked him what the house cavatelli pasta was, he struggled to find a metaphor. "Yes, well... it's rectangular and long," he offered with a strained face. Not quite satisfied, I asked him if the pasta was hollow. "Yes!" he said as if he had just then made the discovery. "It is!"
It's not. Cavatelli, a flat piece of gnocchi-like pasta, is rolled over on itself to form something like a closed shell. Wild Olives' version is not only closed but it's also ribbed and tapered at the end. What the pieces of pasta most resemble are fat-bodied worms.
"Grubs, actually," my friend commented as he forked some cavatelli ($26) from my bowl. Despite the unappealing comparison, these grubs were tasty, napped in a spicy brown butter sauce and dressed up with bits of lump crab meat, wilted arugula, and a few deliciously ripe stewed tomatoes. The only real disappointment in the dish was some severely overdone rock shrimp. Their curled-up tails only furthered the resemblance to insects.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm piling on one poor server, because this isn't the first time I've seen this kind of disregard for detail at Todd English's restaurants. When I reviewed his Italian eatery da Campo Osteria last year, the service was just as lost and confused. Questions about dishes were met with blank stares, and the waiters were stiff and undertrained. The managers spent more time cavorting with friends than tending to tables. Dishes underperformed, especially with price factored in.
Perhaps these are symptoms of English's level of involvement in his restaurants. The chef has barely broken ground on one venture before he's off to ink the next. At least in Wild Olives, he came in to a space that was already fully realized, having belonged to well-regarded Opus 5 in its previous life. Though English and crew have done little to transform the spot, it remains attractive, anchored by two stunning white pillars and a backlit bar that stretches to circular lanterns adorning the ceiling. Created by Miami designer Adolfo Galvez, the image it presents is one of wealth and pretense. It jibes with the place just fine.
What doesn't jibe as well is Wild Olives' kitchen. Although many of the appetizers are decidedly simple — like those asparagus frites, composed of bread crumbs faintly clinging to tender stalks of the vegetable, then dressed conservatively with a coarse-ground honey mustard — others seem like they're trying too hard. I wanted to love the carpetbagger oysters ($16), four fried shellfish resting under a pillow of mashed potatoes and wrapped in a sheer sliver of beef carpaccio. But the oysters, a vibrant mélange of red and white, acquiesce to flat, bland nothingness on the tongue. A flatbread "pizza" with figs and prosciutto — one of English's trademark dishes — is lousy with Gorgonzola cheese, rosemary, and ropey strands of cooked ham ($16). Can you say flavor overload? At least the bianca pizza ($14) with mild rapini and sweet caramelized onions is well-balanced, with a taut, flavorful crust to boot.
At other times, even the simple dishes were way off base. The cauliflower soup we tried was so thick and pasty that my guests sampled bites of it with a fork. Likewise, a Boston bibb salad comes loaded with oily walnut dressing and not enough shaved blue cheese, leading to an unbalanced, unsatisfying $12 starter.
But where the chefs at Wild Olives really perform goofy pirouettes of their own is with the entrées. The huge white plates they present are so overdressed with little embellishments of fried crisps and copious amounts of frilly greenery that you could just as easily confuse them with a landscaping display at the Home Depot. These chefs take pan-seared grouper ($28), an otherwise tasty fillet of Florida fish, and bog it down with a green sauce made of sweet peas, an orange-y beurre blanc, chanterelle mushrooms, and enough leafy green crap to obscure the lot of it.
The same holds true with a bone-in, brown-sugar-cured rib eye ($31) that my friend ordered. Underneath a mountain of wisps and curls and whorls was a piece of steak cut in half below the bone. Each half was crisscrossed on the plate, exposing its center. Immediately upon seeing it, I pointed at the plate and questioned my friend. "Didn't you order that medium?" I asked.
He did. Instead, the rib eye had arrived a quivering, throbbing purple, as rare as a piece of fresh road kill and almost as appealing. What's worse, there's no way the kitchen staffers could've missed this gaffe — how could they, when they had to not only cut through the gelatinous meat but then plate it so as to showcase its doneness? It confounded me. I tried to flag down our waiter, who was headed our way. But as I raised my hand, he turned midstep, as if forgetting something in the kitchen, and ran back the other way.
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Determined to fix this, I got up and walked toward the manager, who was busy leaning against the bar watching television. When I told him about the steak, he followed me back to our table, scooped up the plate, and sped off without saying much at all.
Moments later, we were descended upon. Where our table had been summarily ignored throughout most of the evening, we were now being combed over by three managers, a busboy, and our waiter, all of whom promised quick retribution for the undercooked slab of beef. None of them bothered to notice that our drinks were empty. None removed the plates still there from our appetizer course or noticed that we were missing silverware. They all just brayed and pawed, waiting by the table for us to absolve them of any wrongdoing.
And then, suddenly, we had an honest interaction. One manager, wearing a modest gray suit and an easy demeanor, came by the table to check on us while we waited. He introduced himself as new in town, saying he had just transferred in from Connecticut, where he worked at Todd English's Tuscany at the Mohegan Sun for five years. We welcomed him to Florida, and he smiled — the first genuine smile we'd seen all evening. He noted that our drinks were empty, and he offered to refill them. He took our spent plates away and brought us new silverware. After our steak was returned — a bit burnt and absent the frilly garnish — he stopped by to make sure it was cooked to our liking. Most of all, he acted like he gave a good goddamn.
He probably did. That's more than I can say of anyone else at Wild Olives. English included.