Before our tasting menu at Elaia officially begins, before the first of twelve courses (or was it fourteen? my post-meal notes, chicken scratch under ideal circumstances, suggest that at some point I entered a state of delirium, or left the space-time continuum altogether, and lost count) arrives at our table, our server presents a wooden slab with thinly sliced ham in two artfully disheveled piles. In one pile is the famed jamón ibérico of Spain. In the other is culatello from Salume Beddu, the acclaimed south-city salumeria in which Elaia owner and chef Ben Poremba is a partner. My friend and I look from the jamón to the culatello and then back again. Is Poremba really putting his salume up against maybe the most revered cured meat in the world?
"That," says my friend, "is a ballsy move."
The culatello (a cut from the upper rear of the pig's hind leg — think of it as an especially refined prosciutto) more than holds its own against the celebrated jamón. Aged for two years, it has a remarkable depth of flavor — to pork what bourbon is to corn, rich and sweet, with hints of fruit and spice and earth. The pairing was the exclamation point on what the length of the tasting menu, the quality of our stemware, even the aesthetic appeal of the chair in which I was sitting (it is a beautiful chair) had made clear: Elaia and its adjoining wine bar, Olio, are nothing if not bold.
Elaia and Olio opened in November of last year at the intersection of Tower Grove and McRee avenues in the Botanical Heights neighborhood. Immediately north of Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden, this was previously known, and notorious, as McRee Town. The project, overseen by the St. Louis firm UIC (Urban Improvement Company), is a striking example of urban preservation. Elaia occupies the main floor of a stately 120-year-old house. The interior reveals an elegant, modern renovation, small (it seats 28) but not cramped, with restrained décor — save for one showpiece: a stunning chandelier built out of old pots, fry baskets, bike wheels and assorted other scrap.
Poremba's cooking is Mediterranean in the broadest possible sense: He is a native of Israel; his mother is from Morocco; he has studied and worked in France and Italy. He is confident enough to combine any or all of his influences in a single dish, and he shifts with ease from sophisticated compositions to rustic fare. A salad course could bring segments of winter citrus arranged in Van Gogh swirls, or it could be as straightforward as greens tossed with slivered pigs' ears. The listeners have a mild pork flavor; softened over hours in a pressure cooker, they retain only the slightest cartilaginous spring. A tasting menu might include both a parfait of foie gras with sour cherries and pistachios — you want to spread the foie on toast with the same delicacy with which you polish your great-grandparents' china — as well as a bowl of charred green beans with anchovies, preserved lemon, mint and fresh, housemade ricotta. My friend and I loved both dishes, but we nearly came to blows over the last of the green beans.
Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio
Pickled herring atop a sliver of pumpernickel with potato, beets and crème fraîche follows a recipe passed down from Poremba's grandmother — "Not a word changed!" he exclaims, then adds that this happens to be the only dish his grandmother cooked well — utterly humble and a lovely bite of salt and sea and brine. Grandma might not have coddled scallops so, but an already delicate bay scallop crudo on the tasting menu benefits from the tart, evanescent grapefruit granita the kitchen paints over it. An à la carte entrée of three plump, pan-seared scallops receives a minimalist arrangement, each scallop paired with a small bit of bok choy, with a contrail of cauliflower purée across the center of the plate. "Lovely," you think, and reach for your fork. Wait. Over this, Poremba pours tableside an umami-rich bacon dashi. It muddies the painstaking presentation but deepens the flavor immeasurably.
Poremba is at his best here, blending the high and the low. A dish of charred octopus tossed with chickpeas and piquillo peppers looks — and, at first, tastes — like something fresh from a seaside grill. Yet touches of black garlic and house-fermented kefir add sophistication and a lingering finish. A duo of pork (roasted loin and braised belly) with beluga lentils and braised fennel is a no-brainer cold-weather bistro dish, but a simple side of salt-baked sweet potato gives it the heft of a beloved childhood meal. In such dishes Poremba and his team display not only abundant skill and intelligence but personality.
A few dishes need some panache — or at least a dash of salt. A parsnip-potato soup is pleasantly creamy and featured an interesting textural contrast with crunchy bits of apple, celery and walnut, but it is dead on the palate. Sweetbreads with ethereally light gnocchi have the offal's distinctly earthy flavor, but little else. A splash of acid? A hint of peppery heat? Something is missing.
Both the tasting and the à la carte menus change frequently. In fact, in only four months, Poremba tells me, he has moved through a thousand different dishes. In general, you can expect the tasting menu to proceed from lighter seafood- and vegetable-based dishes to meatier fare and then conclude with a couple of desserts. (More on the sweet stuff later.) The à la carte list features a half-dozen or so appetizers and salads, two or three middle courses (often housemade pastas) and four or five entrées.
General manager and sommelier Andrey Ivanov has put together a wine list that includes not only the expected Old and New World regions but also Romania, Slovenia, Greece, Lebanon and even Mexico. The staff relishes pairing these wines, especially the unusual ones, with your meal. Beer and cocktails, too: My favorite pairings from the tasting menu were a gin cocktail (with the pickled herring) and a wild sour Italian ale (with the sweetbreads). If you can swing the expense — the pairings add $100 per person to the tasting menu's $100-a-pop tab — you should.
Poremba and Ivanov have put together as professional a service staff as you will find in St. Louis. (So professional, in fact, that the staff quickly made me out as a restaurant critic on my first visit.) From checking your coat to swapping out your silverware to finding, with your blind trust, the perfect dessert wine, the hosts, bartenders and servers are prompt, gracious and knowledgeable. They transform a memorable culinary experience into a memorable experience, period.
Olio's transformation from a 90-year-old Standard Oil gas station into an inviting wine bar is even more dramatic than Elaia's renovation. The refurbished façade of red and white tiles frames tall windows and the garage bay. The warmly lighted interior features exposed brick, with weathered wooden shelves adding yet more character. You can sit at the bar (which includes Olio's own, very small kitchen), at a counter that lines the front windows or in one of the freestanding tables in the garage bay. Beyond this, a newly constructed, architecturally unobtrusive corridor connects Olio to a staircase that leads to its dressier sister venue.
As you might expect, Olio offers a more casual and more affordable experience than the extravagance of Elaia, with a menu based around small plates meant to be shared: hummus and a charred-eggplant spread; Salume Beddu charcuterie; cheeses (some of them aged, others cultured in-house). A few dishes — pickled herring, a scallop ceviche — are more or less identical (or at least close cousins) to their Elaia counterparts.
But Olio has its own kitchen — or, to be more precise, its own rotisserie oven and hot plate. Each night brings a special from one of those appliances: Tuesday is lasagna, for example; Thursday is roast pork. When I visited, on a Saturday, the special was lamb shoulder, pungent with the meat's natural flavor and strikingly tender. The kitchen served this with roasted potatoes and some kale, and it needed nothing more.
Poremba's commitment to the Botanical Heights neighborhood extends beyond his paired restaurants. He has partnered with his pastry chef, Simone Faure, to open a patisserie called Chouquette across the street. Not unlike Poremba's cooking, her desserts range from unassuming but delicious — rice pudding flavored with rose water, pistachio and cardamom — to wonderfully over-the-top — "Chocolate and Coffee": a flourless chocolate cake with both chocolate ganache and a chocolate glaze (the chocolate, Mexican, is complex and a touch spicy). On the plate around the slice of cake are dollops of chocolate mousse and cappuccino mousse, as well as crumbled espresso beans and bits of chocolate-chip cookie. For the final touch, Faure sprinkles the cake with flecks of fourteen-karat gold. This last ingredient is for show, of course, and by itself might be unnecessarily audacious. As the final act of Elaia's epic, extraordinary tasting menu, it is earned.
Elaia and Olio is a bold venture, but saying so amounts to faint praise. This twinned newcomer must also be reckoned among St. Louis' very best restaurants.
Slideshow: Photos from Inside Elaia and Olio