THE DISH: Olivetto

THE DISH: Olivetto

Olivetto//Crowne Plaza Hotel, 61 Ligovsky Prospekt//Open 7 a.m. till 11 p.m.//Tel: 244 0001//Menu in English and Russian//Dinner for two with alcohol 3,820 rubles ($118)

Published: September 28, 2011 (Issue # 1676)

Ain’t No Sunshine

Although centrally situated, located just off Nevsky Prospekt, there is something decidedly isolated about Olivetto, the Mediterranean restaurant of the new Crowne Plaza hotel. It is reached by walking through the hotel lobby and up some stairs, with no one on hand to greet diners and show them to their seats (admittedly it is not complicated, but it is still possible to get lost).

On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant itself was eerily deserted, with just one other table occupied out of a total of about 30. The ’80s-style wood paneling, magnolia wallpaper and flat pack furniture are straight out of “The Shining,” (particularly incongruous in a self-styled Mediterranean restaurant) while the flat lounge jazz merely served to repress the atmosphere further. The sterility did have one advantage however, in that it extended to the toilets, which were army-base clean.

The distinctive hotel restaurant vibe is not, however, without redeeming features. The restaurant is well heated and well lit, an impression no doubt aided by the pale decor, while the staff are pleasant and polite, and speak an adequate level of English, as is only to be expected in an international hotel. The waiter was immediately on hand whenever required (though this is perhaps also to be expected when there are more staff than punters), and in general the speed of service found a happy medium between Russian rapidity and European languor (though it did take 10 minutes for a Baltika 7 beer — priced at a steep 150 rubles, $4.84, for 0.3 liters — to appear).

The complimentary appetizer of black olives with breadsticks, hummus and avocado that we were brought was another nice touch, though the olives — that calling card of the Mediterranean and indeed, the inspiration for the restaurant’s name — were stale, soggy and quite obviously preserved.

The menu comprises an encouragingly small range of dishes (that is, if you’re from the Gordon Ramsey school of thought, i.e. the fewer dishes there are, the better the chef knows how to cook them), covering the obligatory pizza and pasta spectrums adequately, and including a Russian cuisine section, for those who can’t wait to get their next hit of borshch (350 rubles, $11.30). A welcome change from the standard Russian culinary scene is on offer through the abundant selection of low-calorie food, with at least one option in every section of the menu.

The complimentary bread basket gave promising signs: Warm, crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and a variety of flavors, including one especially authentic red-pesto roll, whose taste and smell were capable of transporting even the least well traveled diners to a homely little Italian restaurant.

After such an auspicious start, the stakes (as well as appetites) were raised. The seafood risotto appetizer (850 rubles, $26) was a mix of good and bad. The fish was fresh, and the tiger prawns perfectly cooked, but the rice was coated in far too much sickly-sweet butter sauce, completely suffocating the fresh chili intended to counter-balance it.

The Mediterranean seafood soup (410 rubles, $13.25) was, however, excellent. Again the seafood was fresh, and the chili and garlic garnish brought out the flavor well and gave much needed variety to the bouillon soup base.

From the mains, the ravioli with lobster sauce and tomato confit (810 rubles, $26) was the most disappointing dish of all. Rather than a lobster sauce, what actually came was lobster-stuffed ravioli — quite clearly factory-made — with an overbearing tarragon-based sauce, whose sweetness, as well as the lurid pink and yellow color of the dish, only compounded the artificiality of the meal as a whole. The best dish of the night was most certainly that recommended by the waiter, the lamb pastille (1,100 rubles, $35). The gorgeously tender lamb was served in a satisfyingly crunchy filo pastry casing, offset with plenty of lemon juice and a mild but vibrant tomato salsa sauce. This dish certainly warranted its price tag.

While the size of the portions leaves little room for dessert, the ice cream (strawberry, vanilla or pistachio, priced at 110 rubles or $3.54 per scoop) comes served on a bed of brandy snaps with fresh forest berries, putting itself well ahead of the run of the mill soft-serve.

Although the food intermittently warranted its price, considering the slightly bizarre setting in which it was served, there are plenty of other, cheaper southern European restaurants to visit in St. Petersburg before rushing over to this one.

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