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Review: Oliv Pit Athenian Grille in Boca Raton needs more seasoning

 

★★ 1/2

I’ll say this about Oliv Pit Athenian Grille: It is the first restaurant where I’ve dined beneath lighting fixtures fashioned from cheese graters. It is also the first restaurant where I have eaten meats and seafood grilled over briquettes made from olive pits. Truth be told, the flavor imparted from the briquettes was so indistinguishable and unremarkable that items may as well have been cooked over a bonfire of kitchen gadgets. The only grilled item that had a sweet and smoky taste that remotely evoked Greek olives was a fine octopus appetizer ($16), with charred chunks that were slightly chewy in a good way.

Most other items I had from the grill during two visits in the past month were surprisingly bland and underwhelming. Lamb chops, chicken and whole branzino cried out for added seasoning. It would have been nice if traditional Greek herbs or spices — perhaps some fresh oregano, rosemary or mint — could have been detected on the finished product. I had lamb chops ($28) twice, and both times the dull meat, while cooked decently to medium, needed revival with a few hits of requested salt and a few squeezes of lemon.

Even a grilled dish that had plenty of intrinsic flavor, marvelous, sweet head-on giant prawns ($28) from Nigeria, was marred by overcooking. The prawns were still edible and enjoyable, but two fewer minutes on the grill would have meant succulence instead of toughness. The branzino ($34), flown in from the Mediterranean and known as lavraki in Greece, also was overcooked, crossing the unfortunate line from moist to crumbly. And its skin was limp and not crisp.

Oliv Pit, which opened in November 2017 in a Boca Raton strip mall, has its redeeming qualities. The decor is charming and attractive, and the service on my second visit was particularly hospitable, including complimentary shots of ouzo poured midmeal by co-owner Marcos Alexandridis from his private stash (the restaurant does not have a liquor license but sells beer and wine, including some fine Greek offerings).

Fried items were particularly good, including a simple starter of fried whole smelts ($9), served crisscrossed on a platter over pickled onions, carrots and cabbage. The fried feta triangles that accompanied a beet salad special ($13) featured light, crispy batter and creamy, tangy cheese, providing a nice contrast with the thin, vibrant slices of golden and dark beets. And then, there was my favorite dish, zucchini croquettes ($9), an appetizer nothing like I envisioned but wholly delicious. Lightly fried golden orbs that resembled conch fritters were stuffed with fresh ground zucchini, salty Greek cheese and seasoning, served in a basket and topped with chopped scallions. I could have popped these little flavor bombs into my mouth all night long.

“That’s a Yiannis dish,” co-owner Emmanuel Vlahos later told me. Yiannis Stanitsas is an Athens-based chef and consultant who developed the Oliv Pit menu with Vlahos and Alexandridis. Stanitsas has visited the restaurant three times, and Vlahos says the food is a work in progress, with the kitchen still getting attuned to American preferences and palates. At first, there were complaints that the food was too seasoned, Vlahos says, and the restaurant dialed back flavors. Now, they’ll have to figure out a happy medium, he says, with side sauces and marinade options a possibility.

As for the seafood, Vlahos says Greeks tend to like fish and seafood cooked all the way through but that Americans prefer it on the undercooked side. I proposed a simple solution: Have servers ask diners their preference when they order, just like most restaurants do for burgers and steaks.

Vlahos is a product of the United States and Greece, and he is amazed he is now running a restaurant in South Florida. “Growing up I always said I’ll never get into the restaurant business,” Vlahos says. His Greek-born parents ran three restaurants in Warren, Ohio, where he was born and raised. Vlahos studied business and marketing at American University in Athens after he could not afford New York University, where he was accepted. He remained in Greece for more than two decades after graduating, he says, building a successful advertising and marketing firm that at one point had 92 employees. He also had stakes in several small restaurants. He returned to the U.S. earlier this decade after the Greek economy stagnated, and he took a job for a nonprofit in Boca Raton. When the opportunity arose to launch a restaurant with Alexandridis, a Greek-born Canadian and former soccer player, he took it.

“I wanted to do something that was casual and authentic, a place that shows what Athens dining is like today,” Vlahos says, “A place where people can drop in to have lunch before going to the beach or movies without breaking the bank.”

Many items, including burgers, mezzes and souvlaki pita wraps, cost under $15. The cozy dining room (44 seats, with another 48 on the back patio) is whimsically designed by Greek architect Maria Mergoupi, with those cheese grater lighting fixtures and exposed wooden beams above, an open kitchen up front and walls bedecked with mounted plates, pots and pans painted white. A wooden banquette with white cushions and pillows runs the length of the narrow room. The vibe is a mix of Greek Island casual and cramped Manhattan bistro.

Despite all the affordable dishes, tabs can run on the high side and value can seem lean. For $28, I expected more than three lamb chops, and they were not particularly hefty. A $1 surcharge for a side of lemon-roasted potatoes was reasonable but the potatoes, like the meat, lacked seasoning, and I couldn’t detect any lemon. Many protein dishes come unadorned, great for those on Paleo or Atkins diets but not so great for those looking to fill up. Some starchy side dishes are available for $7, including french fries with feta, but many traditional Greek dishes are absent. There is no orzo or rice, no moussaka or pastitsio.

There is spanakopita ($8), spinach pie, but the appetizer was a disappointment, with phyllo dough that was a bit soggy and greasy. The Greek fava-bean hummus ($7) was decent albeit slightly salty, studded with capers. Eggplant spread ($7) was chunky and vinegary with roasted red peppers that overwhelmed the eggplant.

“It’s called the monastery style, and we went with that over the usual smoky recipe with tomatoes,” Vlahos says. “People are split. They either love it or hate it.”

Much of my experience at Oliv Pit evoked split reactions. I loved the creamy almond-cake dessert ($8) flown in flash-frozen from Greece. But the grilled items that are supposed to be the backbone of a place named Oliv Pit were uninspiring. There is no “e” in this restaurant’s “Oliv,” but some of the food here put the “meh” in Mediterranean.

Oliv Pit Athenian Grille

6006 SW 18th St., Boca Raton

561-409-2049 or OlivPit.com

Cuisine: Greek

Cost: Moderate. Small plates, salads, wraps and appetizers cost $5 to $16, specialty grilled items $22 to $34, family style platters $28 to $54

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily (until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and small wine list, including Greek wines

Noise level: Conversational

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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