I was perplexed by Garth Brown’s departure from The Tribune (now The Trib Steakhouse) to take the GM role at Olives. Trading Stephen Avenue, arguably Calgary’s best restaurant strip and all the competitive juices that flow there for hoards of Flames fans and casino dwellers who may be more interested in speed of service than quality of food or any semblance of the program Olives may build seemed odd. What Garth’s move may have lacked in pizzazz has been made up for with a demonstrable execution of his plan for Olives.
Having been to here several times since March the progress has been easy to pick out (even for a guy like me who cannot hide from Garth or his staff). I am impressed by the transformation that has unfolded these past few months and have to admit that while I think the location may have displaced them from seekers of fine dining and the room may feel more like a nightclub than a place some diners will want to spend a lot of time eating in…there are many reasons to dine here again and again.
The name “Olives” would seem to imply a menu dedicated to…well I didn’t know what to think before we went the first time. Upon arriving I saw that the wine list is completely devoted to Italian selections, but I would refrain from categorizing them as a true Italian restaurant. It’s Italian inspired.
The very first thing I ate was a fresh mozzarella and tomato salad and it was incredible. There’s nothing quite like fresh cheese and great olive oil for simplicity and texture. I wasn’t overly impressed with the tomatoes but had just landed from a trip to Australia so was a tad biased in my immediate view of our local produce. The star of my first visit was easily the Black Angus ribeye.
There are about a dozen places in Calgary calling themselves steakhouses and every resto serves steak, but the meat I ate at Olives was one of the juiciest, tastiest steaks I’ve ever had locally. If the ribeye is on the menu and you go, it’s worth a taste and will easily impress over some of our institutional beef houses that rest on their laurels serving the same tired dishes night after night. The final piece of the puzzle on this evening was Tiramisu with Espresso Gelato. I ordered it because Garth insisted it was like no other Tiramisu I have had, and he was right. Fantastic! No drowned out lady fingers or fake whipped cream in the middle. Very well executed.
As indicated I have been back a several times since my first visit and have enjoyed many items such as marinated baby beets and fennel, salads featuring fennel, chicken cooked sous-vide, wild mushroom soup, fresh pasta, etc. There’s a lot going on and the menu changes with the season so it motivates diners to come back and see what Chef JP Gerritsen has come up with. Having watched JP beat Ned Bell and Chuck Hughes in a recent Iron Chef competition in Calgary I can tell you firsthand as one of the event judges that this man can cook, much to the chagrin of the Food Network clan.
The food at Olives may have always been good but the service was inconsistent. Like a baby elephant on roller-skates you could see the lack of coordination right from the beginning. This is an area where I have noticed the largest improvement since my first visit and it makes me wonder why more restaurants cannot seem to clean up their act; “talent shortages” are a lame excuse. The quality of servers has improved steadily since Garth arrived, but the coordinated delivery of food to tables makes the experience so much more pleasant. Good service is not rocket science. Imagine receiving your food with friends at the same time! It seems so simple, basic, but all too often at least one poor schlep is hung out to dry while everyone else gorges. Good manners are outranked by the need for hot food these days but this need not be the case at Olives. A symphony of service awaits you.
Though I didn’t feel the location would be a place I’d want to hang out at night (teens and twentysomethings peeing around each corner prior to entering Cowboy’s) there is ample parking and the area is safe and clean (no one asks you for money on the street) with nary a crack dealer in sight. It served as a reminder of how badly clean-up efforts on Stephen Avenue have been needed.
So after my curmudgeonly preconceptions I have come away many times pleasantly surprised by Olives. My only complaints…the wine list needs an overhaul (if you don’t like Italian wine, you’re out of luck) and the music can be a bit loud for a dining environment but if you want a good time with a group of friends, this lively room is for you. Overall, the food is excellent, service has really improved and the open kitchen concept is a treat to watch. With Lee Peppinck (Calgary’s best bartender) pouring drinks in the comfy lounge and Garth commanding the room, you’re in good hands even before the food rolls out (all at once!). Cheers.