- Walter Novak
- With burger, fries, and a giant 'tini, olive or twist is fine with us.
Gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? Olive or twist? Forget debating the meaning of life; for martini lovers, these are the real issues at hand.
Given the import of its name, then, we're happy to report that at Olivor Twist, the handsome martini bar and restaurant that opened last September in downtown Willoughby, the bartenders clearly know their Grey Goose from a hole in the ground. For proof, take a gander at the well-priced martini menu. The 30-plus choices range from the frilly -- like the self-descriptive Sweet Tart, with Skyy vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice, and Rose's Lime ($7.50) -- to the fierce, and here we'd happily recommend the Dirty 'Tini: a potent pour of Tanqueray Ten and olive juice, garnished with a trio of the plumpest, most succulent blue-cheese-stuffed olives it has ever been our pleasure to devour ($8.50).
But if cocktails gave rise to the restaurant's name, wine lovers have not been forgotten. The well-organized international list offers something for novices and connoisseurs alike, with 48 choices by the glass, nearly 150 by the bottle, and a dozen different suggested "flights" -- two-ounce pours of four different wines related to one another by varietal, style, or geography. Markups -- which, as a rule of thumb, roughly double the retail price for a bottle -- seem reasonable too; an Estancia Meritage that retails for around $26 was pegged at $48. Better yet, at the lower end of the scale, dozens of interesting options are set below $30, including the popular, palate-pleasing Bogle Russian River Pinot Noir.
Of course, wine and cocktails are only half the tale of Olivor Twist; the other half takes shape in the kitchen, under the guidance of executive chef Ryan P. Scanlon and sous-chef Michael Cline. The duo has put together a compact dinner menu of modern American and Mediterranean fare, starting with apps like fried calamari and pan-seared crab cakes, proceeding to salads and gourmet pizzas, then moving on to robustly seasoned entrées like pecan-crusted pork tenderloin and roasted rack of lamb.
Yet it's at this point -- with the food -- that Olivor's tale grows twisted, marked by enough culinary hits and misses to make meals here less than entirely predictable. Who would guess, for instance, that a kitchen that can produce a fine, creamy risotto would then flub a basic crème brûlée? Or that staffers who can source a magnificent piece of halibut can't locate any fresh salad greens?
But despite such notable lapses, the kitchen hits the mark often enough to keep diners in their seats. Take the chunky, chilled gazpacho, a recent Friday soup du jour: A fresh-tasting riot of sweet, sharp, and fiery flavors, bound with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, the warm-weather standard made an eye-popping prelude to a weekday lunch. (The secret ingredients included watermelon juice and ancho chiles.) Or consider the calamari, cosseted in a crisp, dainty breading, with a thick homemade tomato sauce so good that we nearly licked the plate.
But then there were duds: a miserly starter of tiny clams and tinier mussels, some so overcooked that they looked like raisins, in a watery "tomato-Chardonnay broth"; a marinated mushroom salad at lunch, with the tired-looking greens drowning in too much of the overly tart marinade; and that odd crème brûlée, a shallow portion of dry, coarse-textured custard beneath a thick layer of only partially caramelized brown sugar.
At lunch, a grilled chicken, artichoke, feta, and olive-topped pizza made a pleasant nosh, and an eight-ounce Black Angus burger, smothered in piquant cheddar-mustard cheese and sweet caramelized onions, proved tender. Even better: The accompanying tangle of freshly cut shoestring fries turned out to be addictive.
Where the kitchen mostly earned its props, though, was with the main events, particularly that lighter-than-air grilled filet of halibut, garnished with a buttery red-and-yellow-pepper "confit" and settled on a cloud of basil-and-garlic-flecked risotto. A weeknight special, the dish made a delicious showcase for the kitchen's prowess.
While not quite so fine as the halibut, a grilled filet mignon, served on a potato "galette," came close to the mark. Ordered rare, the beef was slightly dry; but what made the dish memorable was that lush galette (actually, more of a potato pancake, made with shredded spuds) and the sleek, spicy black-pepper demiglace that tickled it. The same held true for slices of pecan-crusted pork tenderloin: The meat was OK, but the bacon-piqued potato hash and slightly sweet apple demiglace made it shine.
As a fitting backdrop to the menu, Olivor Twist is done up in contemporary Mediterranean style, featuring soft lighting, sleek table settings, and plenty of stone, stucco, and wood. Separate smoking and nonsmoking rooms lend a civilized touch -- although the fact that the larger, more interesting room goes to the smokers seems to hint that the bar scene carries more weight than the dining.
Maybe that's the case. But with just a little tweaking, the chefs could twist the spotlight firmly in their direction.