Olives Revisited

A Boston institution enters its imperial phase.

Since its opening in 1989, Olives' high-end Mediterranean cuisine has made a big splash in Boston. The restaurant has now spun off a chain of upscale outposts in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Aspen. Recently we visited the flagship establishment to check on life at the head of the fleet.

Getting to Olives is easy, but parking is impossible; count on a $10 valet parking fee to store your wheels. No reservations are accepted for parties smaller than six. Two of us, arriving at 7:30 on a Friday evening, opted for immediate seating in the back room over a 90-minute wait for the noisy bistro up front, where pano- ramic windows offer an agreeable view of Boston's skyline. A waitstaff attired, oddly enough, in blue jeans (garb seen on no customer), provided sedulous service.

Olives: 10 City Square, Charlestown, (617) 242-1999; Dinner only. Monday to Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.Olives' kitchen remains excellent. Prices, however, are markedly higher than those paid elsewhere for comparable fare. Appetizers, for example, verge on entrée prices, starting at $11 for a Greek salad and rising to $15.25 for a yellowfin tuna tartare. The porcini pizette with fontina cheese and caramelized onions ($12.95) was luscious, its crunchy crust contrasting with the melted fontina and the smoky grilled mushrooms. A stellar risotto ($14) hit the al dente bull's-eye. A marvelously crisp Middle Eastern flatbread called za'atar came with tapenade, which, alas, was sparse, and salty even by tapenade standards. A black iron skillet of country mashed potatoes sporting a golden-brown crust was simply scrumptious.

One of the evening's specials, mahi mahi over lobster b'steeya ($28), was a light, delicious fish with a pleasing, smoky fragrance. (B'steeya is Olives' classy variation on a Moroccan dish of shredded meat wrapped in phyllo.) The menu described the warm mushroom salad ($21.95) as "grilled, crazy & exotic," featuring "chanterelles, oysters, portobellos, morels, cèpes." It was no such thing; a succulent, thin waffle filled with creamed corn arrived bordered by mounds of flavorful grilled mushrooms, mostly portobellos. Any costly chanterelles, morels, or cèpes in attendance remained in deep cover.

The long and expensive wine list ranges from the ridiculous--a Sakonnet Rhode Island rosé priced at $25--to the sublime: a $980 Château Margaux. The restaurant's offerings of wines by the glass can bear prices of startling vigor, like the $12 Zinfandel and $11 Shiraz.

In its white ramekin, the vanilla-bean dessert soufflé ($10.25) resembled a chef's toque. However, our server immediately plopped a big scoop of vanilla ice cream into its center, collapsing it into a puddle of sweet white goop. We still wonder how the soufflé would have tasted.

All included, expect to spend close to $100 per person or, if you like pricey grapes, much more. Some of Olives' creations can match anything available elsewhere. It's just that, for the same outlay, you can dine at those other places nearly twice as often.

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