There are three olives on the menu at 400 Olive. Two are kalamata, tossed into a grilled chicken pasta entrée and, oddly, a Caesar salad. The third is a drawing of an olive that stands in as the letter O in the restaurant's name atop the bill of fare. A new eatery that opened in May in the lobby of the new Hilton St. Louis Downtown, which inhabits the historic Merchants Laclede Building, 400 Olive is not an Italian or Mediterranean place, as so many olives might suggest. The name refers to its locale, on the corner of Fourth and Olive streets, and it bills itself as "an urban grille."
That description is a bit misleading, too; though its location on the downtown grid might classify 400 Olive as urban, it's not particularly urbane. While the rest of the lobby has been smartly and impressively designed to pay decorative homage to the Romanesque-style building's history and architectural integrity -- two original bank-vault doors open to a gift shop and a business center, new marble was hauled in and laid down to complement the existing marble work, and a pair of commissioned paintings depict the riverfront and St. Louis founder Pierre Laclede -- 400 Olive, sectioned off in the southwestern corner of the lobby, looks and feels pretty much like any other hotel restaurant: well-appointed, but not exactly fun. A quartet of half-moon banquettes in the middle of the space are upholstered in dark, drab stripes (mostly black, with a little brown and swampy green), their tabletops covered by cabernet-hued fabric. Philadelphia Chippendale-style chairs -- classic in a dowdy, Queen Mum sort of way -- anchor the rest of the tables. Piped-in elevator music, Kenny G-type stuff, deadens the air. There isn't even a bar; that's across the lobby, a self-effacing space called Merchants where hotel guests take their end-of-day Scotches and Heinekens while watching flat-screen TVs.
The menu makes similar nods to the restaurant's location here and there -- namely, in a "Missouri Ozark free-range steak burger" and a "savory cheesecake of smoked Missouri trout," the latter of which, for better or worse, comes off more like an eggy-fishy quiche than a slice of New York-style from Hank's. (It's a strange dish, not for everyone, although its side of braised onion relish is vibrant, summery and yummy.) There are also a few Italian-inspired dishes, olives be damned. An appetizer of grilled eggplant lasagna looks and tastes like it just got off the boat from Sicily, a delectable, unshaped puddle of soft-cooked eggplant, buttery Boursin and fine, fresh marinara. Tuscan white bean soup, done up with bits of Swiss chard, fried pancetta and pecorino Romano, tastes earthy, rustic and perfect.
Most often, though, the menu skips around the vast prairie of New American cuisine: shrimp and spinach dip, grilled basil chicken sandwich, smoked turkey club, maple-glazed smoked pork loin chop. It hits as often as it misses, with as many reasons to run-don't-walk to 400 Olive as there are reasons to run screaming from the place. The roasted corn and crab chowder struts its stuff as fabulously as the Tuscan soup does, its velvety broth (I don't even want to think about how much cream must be in there) promoting the crab meat up to the level of lobster. Likewise, the cleverly done eggplant club, a vegetarian entrée, gives the lasagna a run for its money. Layers of eggplant, sautéed baby spinach, roasted red pepper, fresh mozzarella and marinara burst with color and flavor. If only the olive oil weren't so evident, this would be spa food at its spiffiest.
That ingenuity extends to the salads. Sometimes the cutesiness is taken to an extreme, as in the Wedge Salad, a wedge of iceberg plated with egg wedges and tomato wedges. Other times it's just right. The Merchants Laclede Salad consists of baby spinach tossed with strawberries, mandarin oranges, toasted macadamia nuts, shredded Cheddar (which, sadly, resembles Kraft out of a bag) and honey-poppyseed dressing. It's good, though practically too sweet to finish and no better than the Strawberry Poppyseed Salad served up at your neighborhood Saint Louis Bread Co. Much better -- more playful, yet more mature at the same time -- is the 400 Olive Salad, which comes off like an hors d'oeuvre course plated atop baby greens: a sizable wedge of rind-on Saga blue cheese, its pliancy akin to Camembert, a small pile of lovely prosciutto and a single marinated red pepper as slinky as Mick Jagger's tongue.
One word that appears on 400 Olive's menu three times more than "olive" is "crusted." Five main-course options are so described, from a macadamia-crusted salmon to a garlic-crusted breast of chicken to a seared pepper-crusted beef tenderloin. As with the wedge-happy salad, the trick gets taken too far. Encrusting a piece of meat is far from the greatest thing one can to do it; there are plenty of other, prettier, more subtle and interesting ways to infuse flesh with flavor. Mediterranean-crusted strip steak, ordered medium but served with an interior hue best described as pinkish gray, bore a "crust" of mushy breading that seemed to be the product of an attempt to enshroud a cut of short loin with an entire sea and its bordering regions of Europe, Africa and Asia (or some lemon and garlic).
Nothing good was happening on a plate of Jamaican barbecued chicken, just a boring piece of poultry beneath a smear of sweet, blunt barbecue sauce that may as well have been taken off a supermarket shelf, accompanied by stiff and stale fried plantains and a too-salty edamame succotash. Even the wispy curlicues of sweet potato "confetti" tossed on top of the chicken weren't very lively. Citrus-spice seared tuna, with chilled French green beans and Yukon gold potato salad, was a dingy-tasting take on salade niçoise. The exterior of the cut of tuna looked washed-out, while the inside was an off-putting bubblegum pink, with all the flavor of already-chewed Bazooka.
What's for dessert is cake, usually four different kinds. Chocolate cake was chocolate cake, right down to frosting exactly like that out of a Pillsbury canister, with sugar crystals you can hear ringing in your ear drums as you bite through it. Tiramisu cake was definitely not tiramisu, but rather a whitish-yellow cake with a white icing (like what you get at the bakery for kids' birthdays), and a single chocolate-covered coffee bean that was the sole acknowledgement of genuine tiramisu.
400 Olive is surely sufficient sustenance for the Hilton's guests, but that's faint praise. Too many hotel restaurants play down to their captive clientele, out-of-towners who don't know where else to go for a meal -- especially in this corner of downtown, blocks away from any other fancy sit-down restaurant.