Restaurant Reviews

A Wine Room of One's Own

If you catch Joseph Boueri on a slow night, say a rainy Tuesday when only a few regular customers are hunched over steamy bowls of Prince Edward Island mussels and buttery nests of shrimp parpardelle, you probably won't need to exchange more than a couple of sentences before he beckons you back for a personal tour of Olio's wine room. Boueri is a barrel-shaped man somewhere in his ageless 50s, with solid features and hooded, bedroom eyes; he runs six miles along the beach every morning for the sole reason, he says, that he likes to eat a huge breakfast afterward — like a plate of "Grandmother-style eggs" (with olive oil and rosemary, wrapped in pita) at his brother's restaurant, Boheme Bistro, around the corner. Boueri speaks with a sometimes-impenetrable Lebanese accent; he's equal parts awkwardness and charm, particularly with the ladies, and he's given to punctuating his thoughts with phrases like "Live well, eat well. Life is short." Uncorking a bottle at your table or unfolding your napkin with a flourish, he'll slip into a cheerful patois of French and Italian, "Voilà madame. Buon appetito!"

Boueri's brother Tony, who opened Olio three years ago in an atmospheric Florida Mediterranean-revival building, built the wine room. The restaurant is only a couple of blocks off the craziness of Atlantic Avenue, but this section of street is so dark and empty, you can hear your footsteps echo; you're in film noir country. Olio, which commonly has its front doors thrown open to the breeze, tends to attract locals who appreciate its remoter qualities (at present, the restaurant faces a huge empty lot slated for another pricey townhome project). Tony Boueri and his wife, Rachel, have run lively, touristy Boheme Bistro — with its belly dancers and opera tunes — on Atlantic Avenue for 17 years; word is, they started the business as a way to channel the family's various passions — wine collecting, cooking, interior decoration, and fashion — passions that show no signs of being slaked (Joseph's 20-something son works the floor at Olio; sister-in-law Rachel keeps a dress and sundries shop next door — occasionally, racks of confetti-colored party gowns migrate into the wine room). The floor-to-ceiling shelves in Olio's wine room in any given week hold 5,000 to 15,000 bottles from favorite vineyards in California, Italy, and France — some of them old enough to have accumulated a layer of dust. Blowing away a bit of that dust and cradling a bottle of Meritage, Joseph Boueri will tell you that the longer he lives, the more he favors California wines, the Silver Oak cabernets and the Duckhorn Vineyards blends, a good 2001 Opus One (priced here at $150). At night, this back room, like the bistro's dining room, is lit by oversized silver candelabra that cast long shadows and send reflections glittering off crystal glasses and massed champagne bottles — you enter by ducking through a little antique door, and it's like a child's fantasy of finding a secret passageway, only with very grown-up preoccupations.

Olio means oil in Italian, of course, the liquid gold at the center of all Mediterranean cooking, but an olio is also a stew made from practically everything (I've heard of Medieval recipes that listed more than 50 ingredients), and in English it means a medley, or a miscellany, or an eclectic collection of art or music. It strikes me as exactly the right word to describe the Boueri family's approach to life and restaurants, reflected in the playlist on Olio's sound system — Lebanese pop that segues into an aria from La Bohème followed by an '80s club mix ("This is the rhythm of the night..."), followed by belly dance music — joyous, upbeat, so very dance- and singable.

Like this hodgepodge of tunes, the menu at Olio is a smorgasbord — appetizers run from escargots Bourguignon to coconut shrimp and steamed Chinese-style pork dumplings. There's beef carpaccio and bruschetta and hummus and falafel, fried calamari, kibbe. At Olio, you can order a meatball pizza or eggplant Parmesan, a rack of lamb or meatloaf with mashed potatoes, all of it at old-fashioned bistro prices (the average entrée is around $20, the average appetizer around $9).

I've objected to "international" menus like this one before; the poorly focused, trans-global-snack approach to dining is more the rule than the exception these days — restaurateurs won't risk having a defined sensibility if it means some potential customer somewhere might miss his spaghetti or ginger spring roll. But I object to it less in Olio's case because Tony Boueri has been mixing it up like this for 17 years, collecting recipes from around the world with the same avidity that keeps him scouting for vineyards. Also, there's a flavor profile and an unpretentious way of cooking that loosely binds the whole menu together — whether you're eating curried shrimp or blackened dolphin.

There's no wine list at Olio except for wines by the glass — you step into the wine room (where you may find a private party going on), choose your bottle, hand it over to Joseph, and pay the marked price plus a $15 corkage fee. The prices on the wines are fair, anywhere from a few dollars above to many dollars below what you might pay at another wine shop — and the cheaper, more common wines, like a La Crema Pinot, seem to be marked up more vigorously than the very expensive and rare bottles (the better the wine, the greater the bargain). Because your meal is likely to revolve around a terrific wine, the food preparation is kept simple and fresh to complement your Bordeaux or Barolo, not compete with it. You don't find the complicated reductions or weird pairings of ingredients that sometimes render dinner a mystery and a misery (I recently had an entrée at a popular beachside restaurant that somehow managed to get eggplant, blue crab, yellow fin tuna, feta cheese, tomato coulis, tarragon, and kumquat beurre blanc into one messy and inedible dish). But at Olio the flavors — from a barbecue hoisin sauce on the baby back ribs to a coconut- and cilantro-infused broth for the mussels — have a kind of quickness and lightness that speaks to a steady personality in the kitchen. No ingredient ever loses its identity; it's all there for a reason.

If little has challenged or much surprised me, I still haven't had a dish here that wasn't completely satisfying and pleasant. Small plates of bruschetta, grilled bread heaped with good chopped tomatoes saturated with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar; a creamy, sour, lemon-scented hummus served with soft pita; and a tart, cold, and crunchy Fattoush salad made with cubed cucumber, green peppers, onion, lots of parsley, and tomatoes (each $9) made a mouthwatering antipasti for sharing around the table. Clams casino ($12) arrived steaming and bubbling under a blanket of smoky Parmesan crumbs, each a succulent and sweet mouthful of herbs, bacon, and minced shellfish. We followed these with blackened dolphin, a hearty, moist fillet cooked just translucent that held its own against the fiery blackening mix. It had been quickly seared in a cast-iron pan. Kafta kebab ($19) and shrimp curry ($22) offered notes of exoticism — the juicy kebabs, finely ground beef laced with onion, parsley, sweet and hot pepper and cinnamon pressed around a skewer and char-grilled, had great mouthfeel and sharp bursts of intense flavor.

Five fat, juicy shrimp in a super-hot and buttery curry sauce with fresh tomatoes, sautéed onions, and strips of zucchini, a silky sea around an island of sticky rice, made this shrimp curry a knockout. And those popular Prince Edward Island mussels ($18, served with salty, thin fries) in a bath of coconut milk and cilantro, with hints of onion and celery, made a lovely, light meal.

We shared homemade chocolate cake ($8) for dessert. With all the mousses and soufflés and lava cakes making the restaurant rounds these days, I can't remember the last time I've seen plain old chocolate cake on a dessert menu — although nothing would qualify this one as "plain." I'd forgotten how many textures you can get into a plate of cake — the spongy density of the cake, smooth butter of the filling, hard little curls of shaved chocolate on top, all of it the color of crude oil. Nestled between downy clouds of whipped cream, this dessert was low-key spectacular. And like everything else over one very busy night and one very slow one, it was served with genuine warmth by a waitress who clearly loved her job.

I drove home after our last visit fantasizing about reserving the wine room at Olio for my next birthday party — the only gifts I want are bottles of wine bought and drunk on the spot. I already have my eye on that bottle of Paraduxx that Joseph Boueri lingered over when he showed me around, as if he could barely bring himself to slide it back on the shelf unopened. So many wines, so little time, right Joe? You only live once! Be happy!

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd