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Olio: A modern twist on classic Mediterranean

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Image courtesy of Olio's Facebook

Image courtesy of Olio’s Facebook

Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re missing out on when it comes to food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven, biked or run by the Mediterranean-inspired Olio in Tower Grove and told myself that I simply must stop in for at least a cocktail and an appetizer. This past weekend, I finally had an opportunity to enjoy Olio and now I’m kicking myself for all the times I didn’t go in the past.

If you’ve had the chance to pass by 1634 Tower Grove Ave., you might have noticed the quaint looking building situated on the corner. The large windows and attractive red and white tiles certainly draw your eye, especially if you see the interior bustling with illuminated activity during dinnertime.

Without an up-to-date knowledge on the St. Louis food scene, you might not know the history of the space that now houses Olio. Thanks to the creative and culinary genius of executive chef and owner Ben Poremba, Olio was transformed from what used to be a 1930s Standard Oil Filling Station into a modern-looking wine bar and eatery. The garage door has been outfitted with a grid of glass windows while what used to be the service counter is now a full-fledged bar. Tucked away behind the building is an intimate patio with mismatched furniture and crisscrossed vintage lights strung overhead. Overall, it’s not too casual while still managing to be sophisticated enough to transport you far away from good ol’ Missour-ah.

Molly Rippinger

Molly Rippinger

Since it was a gorgeous spring evening, my friend and I parked ourselves at one of the communal tables on the patio. Looking at the people sitting around us outside, there was certainly a mix between St. Louis yuppies along with local restaurant regulars sporting salt and pepper hairstyles. There was a constant hum of conversation mellowed by a live guitarist strumming a combination of old and new, Greek and Italian songs along with renditions of modern hits like Lorde’s “Royals.”

Oenophiles, cocktail connoisseurs and beer snobs are all welcome at Olio where the beverage list is huge (and we’re talking massive enough to have a table of contents huge). Being a sucker for Manhattans, I couldn’t pass up their “Liberal,” which combined barrel-proof bourbon, sweet vermouth and Amer Picon bitter orange liquor. It was an awesome summer sipper – although not for the faint of heart when it comes to alcohol content – but still absolutely delicious for those who appreciate the complexity of classic whiskey cocktail.

After poring over the dozen or so paged beverage list, we had worked up quite an appetite, making appetizers a must. My friend, who had been to Olio previously, insisted that we order the hummus saying that is was the most incredible kind she had ever tasted. Not one to ignore a recommendation, I agreed to immediately placing an order for the house hummus along with our drinks.

While I’ve certainly had my fair share of hummus (not to mention, I make a pretty mean batch of the Middle Eastern chickpea spread myself), this was on a whole different level. The buttery smooth texture was studded with toasted nuts and enriched by a healthy glug of olive oil. Served in a circular wooden bowl, the hummus had a small crater in the middle that held a dollop of the classic Mediterranean paste, tahini, made from pureed sesame seeds.

Dragging a piece of the warm, house-made bread through the bowl, the first bite was an intense blast of flavor that easily trumps whatever brand of pre-prepared hummus you’ve bought from Schnucks by two fold. The mild chickpea base is amplified with the anchors of Mediterranean cuisine that include garlic, sesame, smoked paprika and extra virgin olive oil.

If you’re baffled by my ramblings about a simple dip, just do yourself a favor, order it and you’ll understand.

Other offerings for those with larger appetites than just a bowl of incredible hummus should look to Olio’s ever-changing lineup of sandwiches. While the list of ingredients might seem elementary, trust me, their twist on ham and cheese is anything but cold cuts and Kraft singles. Rather, the sandwich is a toasty stack of sourdough bread layered with speck (basically the Italian version of bacon that’s made from the pork leg rather than belly) and slices of nutty Gruyere cheese, while bits of preserved lemon provide a pleasant pop of acidity to cut the sandwich’s salty richness.

Besides the hummus and haute sandwiches there are also other small plates, salads and entrees to enjoy at Olio. Word on the street is that their Sunday brunch is a knockout blend of mid-morning cocktails and wickedly decadent dishes, such as the Belgian waffles topped with fried rabbit saddle in lieu of the standard chicken breast.

Regardless if it’s for brunch, lunch of dinner, don’t wait to explore Olio like myself. The environment is innovative, the drinks are spot-on and the unique Mediterranean menu will keep you coming back for more.

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