I’ve been to Olio many times. I’ve spent summer evenings with family and friends on the outdoor patio of Ben Poremba’s cleverly refurbished gas station on Tower Grove. But never had I been to Elaia, it’s co-joined restaurant. To get there you walk down a narrow hallway in the back of Olio and up a half flight of stairs. Behold! Tucked into the second floor of the attached house is a quaint hideaway with seating for about 30 or so.
The Upper Dining Room
Elaia is more uppity than its downstairs sister. It feels like a secret culinary cave, where magic morsels are about to appear on your plate (and palate). The candle lit, white-clad tables, soft lighting, and muted tones also add a romantic glow to the small space. A number of couples were happily exploring the 4-course, small plate menu—though there’s a 10-course tasting version for experiencing a wider range of Executive Chef Ben Grupa’s talents.
Servers wear street clothes (no aprons or attachments that set them apart). They’re chatty and knowledgeable and careful to explain the makeup of every dish set before you. Between courses, used plates and utensils were swiftly whisked away so the table constantly had a fresh, uncluttered look.
We sat almost beneath the huge chandelier made mostly of kitchen paraphernalia—pots, pans, and colanders; I even saw a bike rim. The whimsical light fixture is further evidence of Poremba’s knack for turning familiar, everyday items, into complex creations both in the kitchen and dining room.
A Bastion of Food Innovation
During the evening, we feasted first on an amuse bouche. It’s a lovely French custom for the chef to give a free tidbit before the meal as a taste treat. This evening it was a silky Green Apple-Celery Mousse, that prepared the taste buds for the upcoming flavor festival.
The White Asparagus with morel mushrooms and hollandaise sauce was splendid. The one bite I had of the Duck Rillettes with pickled plums and figs convinced me to include it in my next meal at Elaia. My main course was delightful too: Halibut Brandade with carrot confit, ramps, caviar-mustard, creme fraiche and almond gremolata. That’s a lot of culinary gibberish, but it helps explain the complexity of ingredients and flavors.
Desserts to Swoon Over
Dessert at Elaia is not a minor event; it’s a warm hug at the end of a glorious meal. There were three desserts and we each got a different one and shared. Mine was described as an olive oil cake having white chocolate slivers and both red and white strawberries.
“White strawberries?” I asked. Our server explained that they’re smaller than the reds and have a pineapple like flavor. Okay, I learned something new about food. But I always do when eating from a Ben Poremba menu.
Elaia Culinary Awards: Ranked #2 “The 100 Best Restaurants in St. Louis,” 2015-2017; Four Diamonds designation by AAA; Ben Poremba is a three time James Beard Award Semi-Finalist. Executive Chef Ben Grupe was Team Captain in the Culinary Olympics, that led to the American team earning three gold medals and won 2nd in the tryouts in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition.