Recipe for Success

The Black Olive opens amid tough times in the restaurant business. But its food and ambiance give it a fighting chance to prevail.


The Black Olive
The Black Olive

It takes a lot of courage to open a restaurant in the best of times. One in four new ones closes in its first year.  And when you consider the astounding costs of construction, equipment and staffing, it’s a wonder anyone thinks he can pull it off.

In times like these, with the economy plunging and lights going off in restaurants all over town, it may take something more than just bravery to succeed in opening an upscale eatery in the heart of otherwise bar- and entertainment-laden downtown Orlando.

Huddled in the base of The Plaza condo building’s north tower, with sushi and pizza joints as neighbors, the pan-Mediterranean restaurant called The Black Olive may succeed mainly thanks to  what’s coming out of the kitchen.

Owner Louis Huang has been in the local restaurant business for more than 20 years, one time owning the Italian high-end Bola Ristorante. He seems to have learned a thing or three about ambiance. I like the feel of the room. It’s calm with dark browns and wood, highlighted by a stone Greco-Roman frieze along one end. You enter from Pine Street, and the wall-high windows, looking out onto the CityArts Factory building, make Black Olive feel like it’s in a big city downtown. Credit must go to whoever designed the lighting, which is aimed at tabletops and not in diners’ eyes.

And look at what’s on those tabletops! I think I’d come to Black Olive just for the grilled octopus antipasti ($12)—not an easy dish to make as tender as this one was—or an arugula salad ($9) served with bright limoncello vinaigrette and a savory chunk of smoky haloumi cheese. It did what an appetizer should do: whet the appetite.

Those balances of tastes are often overlooked in American kitchens, and Chef Dan Kernan is both brilliant and lucky when it comes to flavor combinations. For example, a dish of grilled bronzini (not a high-wire circus act, but a pretty fish also called Mediterranean Sea bass or dace; $20), was matched with a marinated artichoke and what I was told would be the “best piece of feta cheese you’ve ever had.”

And it was, decadently smooth and goaty. Each part seemed fine on its own (OK, the very mild fish didn’t excite me), but eating the mixture of disparate tart, creamy and salty flavors was worth the price of dinner. Kernan is fortunate to have access to such fine ingredients. General manager David Miles told me the fish is flown in every day, “and when it runs out, it runs out.”

Kernan comes with years of experience at Vines Grill on West Sand Lake Road, which I quite like, and Huang’s other property, Cattleman’s Steakhouse on International Drive. He has a fine hand with Black Olive’s stated theme of Italian and Mediterranean dishes. Leaves of pappardelle pasta are folded over rich porcini mushrooms and rappini ($17) like deconstructed ravioli.
For eye appeal, there’s a liberal use of bolted herbs and edible flowers in just about every course; tiny marigold-like flowers tasting of anise bloomed in a salad, spikey purple chive heads under a pyramid of olives, a tiny rose atop a plate of lamb chops.

Meticulously prepared chops, by the way, crusted in pistachio and wasabi and cooked, in our case, precisely to medium-well, were nestled on a bed of chewy fennel-scented risotto ($28). It was what my companion called a rewarding meal.

If Black Olive fell down anywhere, it was in the details, and I hope those will improve with time. The breadsticks, what seemed to be twice-baked batons of focaccia, were limp and disturbingly chewy. Microgreens, first in a salad and again accompanying a main course, were yellow and “past the sell-by date,” as the British say, and never should have left the kitchen—let alone twice.

I’m still trying to make up my mind about the initial piece of information our very friendly waiter volunteered about the menu. He described the day’s soup, and then said, “But I wouldn’t order it, the chef needs to adjust it – too salty.”

I’ve never had a server tell me not to order a dish. On the other hand, there were times I wished one had.

The Black Olive
ADDRESS 22 East Pine Street, Orlando
PHONE 407- 849-1689
ENTREES $14-$29