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Sweet Nothings

Our photographer wasn't allowed inside Dolce Oliva. Too bad, because the dining room was better than the food.
Tom Jenkins

The olive dominates. It's a persistent cartoon, a huge green oval impaled by a skewer, slipping through the orifice in the red "O" in Dolce Oliva's name as if it were a martini glass rim. You can see it above the faux granite bar, where plaques flaunting the words juicy, plump, firm, meaty and soft are interspersed with olive images. Not far from this visual stream is a string of Warholish renderings of beauties in 1950s bathing regalia.

Is this an ode to a Sputnik-era three-martini lunch? Hard to tell. Dolce Oliva, or sweet olive in the language of the boot, has been the project of chef Los Akins (formerly of The Moonshine Cafe and PoPoLos) for a little more than a year. It was Roberto's for two years prior and Rodolpho's for about 20 years before that. "We wanted to call it Olive," Akins says. "Todd English has a restaurant called Olives [New York, Boston, Aspen, Tokyo, D.C., Vegas], and he makes it difficult."

So stir in a little Italian nomenclature. But careful, not too much; it brings in undesirables. "We're just trying to get away from a lot of that traditional Italian food, because it was just bringing in the wrong people," Akins says. "They want to pay $4.95 for spaghetti and meatballs and drink iced tea, and we weren't making money."

So rather than drown in a sea of iced tea and meatballs, Akins decided to make his Oliva menu have more of a PoPoLos semblance: light Mediterranean and such.

And while the moniker winks supper club, the demeanor is rustic. It's flanked with patios of stone, wood and iron, foliage weaving through the metal in some places. There are fireplaces and white tablecloths covered in butcher paper. The staff is attentive. The food wanders.

Olives invade the antipasto plate, which can best be described as a bunch of cans disgorged, their contents strewn without a guiding principle. Artichoke hearts rest naked, unseasoned and unadorned, in their own juices. Hearts of palm slump and glisten nearby. Chickpeas huddle in a loose cluster near a corner of the plate without any culinary supervision. Cucumbers, asparagus, kalamatas and tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs round out the slovenly assemblage. Unifying principle? Not evident. Imagination? None, not even in the form of a simple visual statement.

This is in contrast to the smoked salmon carpaccio, which had a simple unifying principle, namely thickish sheets of pink fish tied off in the center by a rumpled salad of capers, red onion slivers and Parmesan cheese. Lemon is in there, too. Olive oil is not, not even to lend the pinkish folds a gentle shimmer. Yet the slices are delicate and tender, rich even. The elements are crudely tuned into balance, with acids and brine scrubbing the palate after mounting salmon richness and smoke fog the tongue.

It works well, in its own crass way, which points to a conundrum. Why does the rest of the menu seem so frumpy, dumpy and bland? Is it execution? Cost cutting? Ennui?

If any of these maladies are infecting the kitchen, they haven't yet spread their fevers to the servers. Example: On our first visit, our server recited the specials and his recommendations with the fervor and certitude of an apostle. Building bits of swordfish and saffron into an oratory crescendo, he lifted his eyes leftward and pressed his palms together prayer-like as he trilled the "r" in risotto and very nearly severed shrimp into two syllables. This guy would take a medal in a def menu poetry jam.

And those shrimp in the seafood risotto were little--microscopic, really. If they weren't so yellow from all the saffron, you could squint and easily see them posing by the hundreds in a plastic bag lodged in a freezer corner, yearning for a stint in an all-you-can-eat popcorn special. There were little scallops in there, too, along with waxy chunks of swordfish. Instead of smooth and creamy, the risotto is coarse and firm--and as yellow as fool's gold.

The wine list is brief, and for a venue with an Italian moniker, Italian juice barely soaks through. When we asked if there were some good Italian bottlings, our server said breathlessly, "Oh, yes," and pointed to a single Banfi Chianti, virtually the only Italian red in a deep puddle mostly from California. Bottles predominantly hugged the $30 to $40 range and beyond. Maybe this is why Oliva sells so much iced tea.

Does the food move? Some of it has wings. Roasted rosemary chicken resting in a bath of pan drippings shot with sherry has a well-charred skin, and the meat is moist. But the flavors are exhausted, possibly from age, or more likely from an improper freezing and thawing sequence somewhere in the chicken's life span. And despite the menu heading, it was nearly impossible to pull any rosemary out of the flesh. Charred quail on roasted onion polenta and shaved pecorino cheese fared better. The meat is moist and chewy, the polenta crusted and dewy.

Roasted duck breast on risotto sown with arugula and bits of pancetta read with promise, but that evaporated. First, the dish wasn't duck breast at all but was a pair of leg and thigh assemblies. Second, the meat was dry and tasted old, like the roasted chicken.

This is tragically odd, because the food doesn't measure up to the ambience, which is Spartan urban country quaint. Patio dining is pleasant, though the view of Royal Lane and GF Prime steak house across the street, along with the concomitant din, roughens the edges. Service out here is as diligent as it is on the inside. One of the waiters even got locked out on the patio, as the space is separated from the inner dining room by a self-locking door. After serving our table, he enthusiastically knuckled the door glass until someone heard his distress and pushed it open. Then the two waiters feverishly tied a tourniquet around the door latch, anchoring it on the knobs to keep the mechanism from engaging in the jamb. What, no keys?

This is not to suggest that everything at the sweet olive is wounded. Blue crab claws, marinated in lemon and served in lemony garlic butter sluiced with crab juices, are crowned by deliciously thin onion rings. Crab is firm, tender and smooth instead of tough, rough and grainy. Tasty, too.

But this was a detour. Pepperoni pizza is a thick, shiny sheet of mozzarella--with pepperoni discs and slight oil pools spotting the surface--mounted on a thin crust. The edges are slightly singed in areas. Yet it's doughy, pliable stuff, like cheap prefab.

Broccoli cream soup arrives with a wrinkled skin surface that had to be pierced to plumb the thickened stock. It has a fuzzy grip and precious little seasoning, like nuked flour water speckled with herbs.

Pork chop looks compelling: a simple, bold chop with a thick bone curving out of the end of the slab. A rusty red demi-glace cut with port and speckled with pancetta puddles the surface and streams down the thick edges, pooling at the base. The meat is gray, dull, grainy and dry, growing pink and gelatinous as the center is broached. Time for dessert.

Tiramisu would seem a perfect cap for a restaurant with the word dolce in the title. It held promise: The cake is firm and moist, not soggy, though a little shy on flavor. It was crowned with four strawberries, one of which was conspicuously moldy. Perhaps this restaurant looks much better when viewed through a skewered olive, soaking in gin. 5956 Royal Lane, 214-368-5039. Open for lunch 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$


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