Olive's Restaurant and Bar

(Grand Rapids, MI) On our way to run errands before our traditional Hoppin' John New Year's Day get-together, we knew we'd have to grab lunch somewhere. Juliet tasked me with finding a place, so I hopped on Google and found Olive's Restaurant and Bar. The menu looked eclectic enough to warrant a glass of wine. Sold! We bundled up and headed out for East Grand Rapids...

He Fed:
I've driven by Olive's in past, but never thought to stop in. Not sure why; whenever I'm in "East" there are some other favorites that I just gravitate towards instead. We find a spot outside and head in, past a heavy rubberized curtain protecting the entry from the elements. It makes it awkward to hold open the door for Juliet. (Later, I notice some passersby who seem stymied by the doorway, unsure if or how they should enter.)

We are greeted by our server, who is working the entire dining area today, it seems. She is friendly (perhaps too friendly, calling us "my darlings" several times; I can't decide if it's annoying or endearing) but not overly efficient. Decor is mostly wood, with some interesting paint choices. There are some cabinets in the corner made up to the look like gifts for the holiday season (we believe there is storage and wine racks behind the gift wrapped doors). The whole restaurant seems to have a laid-back, homey vibe. I'm uneasy about the food now.

To start, I order a cup of the Tomato Blue Cheese Bisque. A nice hot cup of soup sounds good, and it turns out to be very nice: well-blended tomato with tiny, tiny chunks of vegetable (celery? hard to tell) and a low-key blue cheese. The light and smoky Laforet Pinot Noir actually complements it, and I am pleased with my choice of wine. While I spoon up the last of the bisque, a cook runs out from the kitchen and dashes toward the D&W Fresh Market just across the parking lot opposite. He come back a few minutes later with, presumably, some ingredients they needed. It must be nice having a grocery store so close by!

I am not overly hungry, so I opt for a single small plate of the Shanghai Cabbage Rolls. About six of the rolls arrive on a pretty plate swirled with pepper jelly, alongside a splash of Sriracha. The tender insides of ground pork, jasmine rice, and water chestnuts are earthy but ethereal. The Napa cabbage exterior, though, are a bit too overcooked...but not by much. I prefer my cabbage with a bit of snap left in it. Taste is spot on, however. The sweet-hot combo hits all the right notes on my palate. Again, surprisingly, the Laforet stands up to the spiciness. Wonders never cease!

By the time we finish, more people are starting to pour in. Our server begins to get a little swamped and help arrives from the kitchen. As we pay our bill, we're surprised to find a secret coupon inside that we're not supposed to open; it'll be opened by the server the next time we stop in for a bite. It's a good marketing ploy, and one we'll utilize. Although the lunch didn't surprise me, I am pleased enough to want to come back.
She Fed:
As we walk in, the bartender who's doubling as the sole waitress invites us to sit anywhere. We choose a table by the window and do a little people watching, East Grand Rapids style. I get the added benefit of watching some of the action in the kitchen via the little pass-through window from the dining room.

Olive's menu has plenty of unique starters, salads and sandwiches. I'm debating between the turkey sloppy joe and the zucchini parmesan sandwich. The Cuban panini sounds good too, but I have eaten far too much meat this holiday and decide to go vegetarian with the beet and goat cheese salad. I order a glass of California cabernet sauvignon and a cup of soup to start.

I opt for the broccoli cheddar soup and regret my choice immediately. Most cheddar-based soups are gloppy and gooey, which defeats the whole point of ordering a salad. I don't know what I was thinking, but it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The soup is flavorful with chunks of perfectly and uniformly diced carrots, celery, and onion. There is a slight but not overpowering or greasy cheddar flavor. The broccoli is bright and green, not the horrid grey-green shade you usually find. All the veggies have a very slight crunch to them, not too much, but just a little tooth. There is no glop or goo here. It's a brilliant little warm-up to lunch.

While I've been oohing and aahing over my soup, I notice chef has been keeping an eye on our table. Our waitress checks in on us too. In fact, she's buzzing around the entire room waiting on several tables, making drinks and pouring wines behind the bar, and delivering food with apparent ease.

My salad arrives: drop-dead gorgeous! Light green bibb adorned with purple hunks of beets, orange slices, blobs of goat cheese, green pistachios, and schmears of creme fraiche. Maybe because the landscape is so dreary this time of year, colorful food seems especially important right now. One bite of the salad and I'm fawning all over it. The beets are perfectly cooked and the oranges are sweet and refreshing. The pistachio vinaigrette includes what must be a quarter cup of the meaty morsels. Chef is generous with the goat cheese, too. As I use the beets to scoop up the goat cheese and creme fraiche, my plate is left with pretty swirls of pink. This is one of the best salads ever and I am eager to return to Olives to enjoy more of their menu. A leading culinary magazines recently predicted the demise of the beet and goat cheese salad in 2011. Like hemlines, food trends come and go, but I hope they're wrong. It's one of my favorites and Olives elevates it to a whole new level.

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