Repeatable: No. Visits: 1
Every critic in Seattle–both professional and blogger– has been swooning about Olivar, so I eagerly anticipated my experience there. The ecstatic praise has focused on the Spanish-accented food and French chef Philippe Thomelin’s movie-star mug. Date night was Thursday at 7pm–peak dining time. Chef Thomelin was definitely on the premises, because we saw him chatting with neighboring diners. He is much better looking in person than his photos suggest.
Yes, Olivar’s chef is hot. But the food?
Not. And I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps the chef’s absence from the kitchen to attend to his fawning female fan was the reason the first couple dishes were such fumbles. Two specials, fried rice balls (arancini) with foie gras and mussels with salsa verde, were both $12 each and quite unappetizing. The rice balls were sodden with grease–oil oozed out when sliced in half. Worse, the grease tasted as if it had been serving time in the fryer for life. The tiny foie gras sliver in the center of the ball tasted off–almost fishy. The mussels were plump, juicy little things, but utterly devoid of anything but the flavor of mussel. The salsa verde? Salty green water.
Next up were three little hot plates from the regular menu. The patatas bravas ($10) consisted of a handful of french fried potato spears with a few slices of dried blood sausage and a poached egg. Utterly uninspired. The grilled pork belly ($7) was only notable for its fanatically fussy arrangement of capers, chopped cornichons, egg, and parsley. Nothing to swoon over.
Still, I was hopeful, thinking that the rice ball-oil bombs had been a terrible oversight. But then came the gnocchi, more specifically described as “potato gnocchi with roasted cauliflower, Valdeon blue cheese, and truffle oil” ($12).
I am, you see, something of a gnocchi fanatic. I have eaten gnocchi at the two restaurants in Italy famous for their gnocchi. I have eaten Mario Batali’s gnocchi, Lydia Bastianich’s gnocchi, and the gnocchi special at Patsy’s when they have it. And, yes, I know how to make gnocchi, too.
Olivar’s gnocchi? Those were not gnocchi. Those were half-raw clumps of badly made dough pretending to be gnocchi. To add insult to injury, they arrived drowned in a pool of olive oil, because someone had used a heckuva lotta oil to fry them.
Ever the optimist, I was hoping for redemption with the cazuela ($18), or the paella (the cazuela is the dish paella’s made in). If any dish had the potential to break our run of bad luck so far, it had to be this one. In an authentic Spanish restaurant, the paella should be the go-to dish, the one guaranteed to work even if all others fail. This final course would either make or break the evening.
It certainly looked pretty. I looked closer. Was that a tightly closed, dead as a doorknob clam right there, in full sight of God and all? I gingerly picked it up and set it aside.
I bravely shoved a forkful into my mouth.
A patch of cool rice and undercooked calamari. I looked at my husband, who returned the favor, poker-faced. In utter disbelief, I tried the accompanying chicken chunks (dry and tasteless), the mussels (same exact ones that came in the “salsa verde”), and the calamari (undercooked with no flavor). The rice was just plain weird tasting, with too much smoke and astringency. A paella should be the heart and soul of a Spanish restaurant–not an indifferently prepped rice and seafood casserole made fancy by an imported earthenware container.
We decided to skip dessert and ask for the check. As a trio of fabulous boys from the neighborhood sat down with giggly anticipation, I wanted to tell them to make a run for it, but I couldn’t. Maybe we just happened to be sitting in the Bermuda Triangle that night. My husband chided me for wanting to say “maybe” about the experience. “We probably had bad luck,” I said. When I told him we needed to go again, he told me I was on my own and thus forced my hand.
Astonished by how very different my experience was from everyone else’s, I decided to pore over every single review of Olivar as soon as we got home. I wasn’t so unlucky after all. Buried here and there in between the raves were little hints of the problems we experienced–problems that for some reason didn’t bother the other reviewers. The Seattle Times critic had noted that the gnocchi were “undercooked” while the PI critic actually chose to single out their “croquette” like texture (huh?) and gush over it. No one had any praise for the cazuela, if it was mentioned at all. Everyone loved the coffee and desserts, which we didn’t try.
Maybe next time. Or maybe not.