Society Hill BYOB has heart, but lacks focus, training and verve.
The best neighborhood BYOBs are often casual affairs, but that doesn’t mean that serious lapses should be overlooked. Being casual means that everything hangs out—no fancy service routines or baroque presentations to cover your ass—so more things than not have to go right.
I bring this up because I wanted to like Olive on 3rd. The location, the former home of Ava, has good food karma, and the menu, at a glance, is full of appealing dishes.
But on closer inspection, that menu—like Olive pretty much in its entirety—is too eclectic for its own good. Simply put, there’s too much going on here, a lack of focus that seems to have resulted in too many dishes devoid of either personality or, worse, flavor.
Monk fish occobucco (Olive employs this less-familiar spelling of the more commonly seen osso bucco) seemed thrown together, very odd for a dish that takes some real time to prepare. The cooking liquid, dominated by the deep-green flavor of olives and capers, cast a near-obscuring shadow over the fish; and while the accompanying sauteed potatoes and broccoli were pleasant enough in a generic sort of way, they evidenced no real thought in terms of their contribution to the whole.
Shrimp scampi over linguine missed by every metric possible. A bite of the pasta revealed little more than the starchy cooking water and mediocre olive oil used to cook it, and the shrimp were cooked to the point of mealiness. Spaghetti and meatballs suffered a similarly flavorless fate, the noodles mushy and the meatballs devoid of any perceptible seasoning. They also were made with too much bread: While a tender, pillowy meatball is a beautiful thing, these carb-y orbs had a texture close to bread pudding.
Appetizers were better, though this is a matter of context. Caesar salad lacked the garlicky attack of a well-constructed example, but was otherwise nice enough. Whitefish empanadas were helped by a beautiful homemade dough, but the filling tasted of little more than some sort of indistinct ur-fish, and the advertised green olives, tomatoes, thyme, garlic and onions were perceptible nowhere but in print on the menu. Even the salsa that came with it was watery, a tiny, retirement-home-bland cup devoid of inspiration or interest.
Fried calamari was one of the few highlights: Finally, salt! Finally, creativity! The little semolina- and cornmeal-crusted rings themselves were well-fried, seasoned with a far more aggressive hand than anything else I tasted and plated with a frizzle of fried parsley whose pleasant bitterness was one of the only instances of complexity I experienced here.
Service was confused (or misinformed) from the moment I walked through the door. An otherwise thoughtful welcome gift of roasted red and yellow peppers, Mediterranean olives and cheese was straightforward and delicious, but the cheese, a smoked Gouda, was misidentified as Asiago, way on the other end of the taste spectrum.
Desserts, too, caused a fair bit of confusion. Our waitress told us that they were brought in, but later, in a follow-up call to the restaurant, I was told that they’re all made in-house—a clear example of either exceptionally poor training or staff management. Still, the house-made cheesecake joined the calamari as a success; I especially liked the homey touch of adding ground pretzels to the graham-cracker crust.
There may have been few food highlights, but manager and co-chef Christine Fischer (the other chef is Gildardo Zavala Cortes) is as welcoming as any restaurateur in town, and her earnestness is genuine and charming.
Unfortunately, she’s going to have to really think about what kind of restaurant she wants to helm, dial in on one or two cuisines beyond “that home away from home,” as she told me during a follow-up call, and focus on far more careful work in the kitchen and the dining room. (She also said that she “doesn’t want to be that froofy restaurant,” but casual and professional can and should co-exist far better than they do here.)
In the end, details matter, especially in a neighborhood like this one, which has no shortage of solid restaurants that know exactly what inspires them, and that convey that vision with every dish that’s sent out to a tableful of hopeful, hungry guests in a manner that’s both casual and competent.
518 S. Third St.
Cuisine: Homestyle cooking in a mishmash of guises.
Hours: Sun., 1-7pm; Mon.-Wed., 4-9pm; Thurs.-Sat., 4-11pm.
Price range: $5-$21.
Atmosphere: Homey and casual.
Food: Unfocused and a bit on the bland side.
Service: In desperate need of better training and management.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014