Raising the bar: You can dine as well as imbibe at Olive or Twist
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Olive or Twist is the place to go for martinis and executive chef Josh Johnson's Moroccan Chicken.
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140 Sixth Ave., Downtown
Basics: A martini bar and restaurant serving lunch and dinner. The food is contemporary American grill style ranging from salad and sandwiches to full entrees. Ingredients are fresh; service is casual. There is live entertainment Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$11; entrees, $14-$28; desserts, $6; wines, $7-$10 for a 6-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Parking in lot on Sixth Street at downtown rates.
Noise level: Medium to high.
You have to love a place with a name like Olive or Twist. Whether because you are a Charles Dickens fan, loved the musical "Oliver!" or because, like myself, you think a martini is a glass of icy gin with a drop of dry vermouth and an olive or a twist of lemon peel, it's a name cloaked in wit and double entendre. But it isn't a name that I associate with food, so for years I have walked by the door of Olive or Twist without realizing that it serves serious meals.
Located in the heart of the Cultural District, Olive or Twist is housed in a long, narrow space that over the years transitioned from bank to delicatessen to restaurant and lounge. Lofty ceilings are capped with old tin panels painted black. Exposed red brick walls, artfully lit with sconces, are left unadorned. The front half of the space is devoted to a long bar that seats 30 and a number of high-top tables for two. The rear half is devoted to low tables and chairs with seats for 50 diners. Table tops are bare, napkins are linen, and the menu is more than just bar food.
Chef Josh Johnson, a Pittsburgh native, has been at Olive or Twist since it opened in 2001. He has kept the menu simple, with an emphasis on salads and sandwiches, but the appetizers and entrees are worthy of attention. Everything on the menu is trans-fat-free.
Chicken Saute ($9) is an appetizer that could double as a light entree or an appetizer for two. Five wooden skewers of grilled chicken breast cubes are served with a delicious sesame-peanut-curry dipping sauce and fried bean-stick noodles. Beef Tenderloin Skewers ($10) are the meat version of the same appetizer with beef skewered with alternate pieces of yellow pepper and served with fried plantains and mango puree sauce.
Soups, salad dressings and even ravioli are made in-house. Soup of the day when I ordered it was Tomato Basil Cream ($4). This rustic version had chewy chunks of tomato, fresh basil and a touch of cream. If soup is the best test of a chef's abilities, this chef passed with high honors. His French Onion Soup ($5), topped with Gruyere cheese and baked, was also a success.
Salads are available with a broad variety of meats and seafood. My Seared Ahi Tuna Salad ($10) was an impressive presentation of a large platter of field greens topped with two large diamond-shaped tuna steaks encrusted with black sesame seeds and seared. A Szechwan vinaigrette provided just the right amount of peppery heat for the tuna, and the plate was finished with roasted tomatoes and fried bean stick noodles for color balance and aesthetic appeal. The Grilled Chicken Salad ($9) adds pecans, goat cheese and slices of green apple to the greens that are topped by a grilled chicken breast. Grilled Scallops Salad adds fresh pineapple, candied pecans and goat cheese to the greens and tops it off with five grilled scallops. The dressing is pineapple vinaigrette.
The Black Angus Burger ($8) is 8 ounces of grilled beef with a choice of cheese plus lettuce and tomato served on a soft, egg bun with a choice of spiral cut or sweet potato fries. Other sandwiches include turkey wrap, classic club, crab cake and tilapia. All are served with fries, vegetable or salad.
My favorite entree is Lobster Ravioli ($19). These pasta pillows are made in the kitchen from fresh pasta stuffed with a rich blend of chopped lobster meat and ricotta cheese. The creamy roasted tomato and garlic sauce is a perfect foil for the lobster stuffing. This dish, served with grilled yellow squash and zucchini on the side received a perfect score from all the tasters at my table. Cedar Plank Salmon ($16) also got high marks. A 6-ounce farmed-salmon steak is lightly roasted, leaving the fish moist and flavorful. It is served with freshly made habernera salsa, a combination of tomatoes, onions and chopped cilantro with orange juice, which provided a pleasant citrus tang to the fish. The plate was finished with dilled potatoes and fresh snap peas and baby carrots. Moroccan Chicken ($14) is an unusual preparation of grilled chicken breast that has been marinated in a blend of Moroccan spices that bring an exotic character to the bland chicken. This is complemented by a salad of chick peas, capers, cucumber, pecans and raisins dressed in a sauce containing the same spices and herbs. Close your eyes, take a big whiff and you will be transported to the souks of Marrekesch.
The single disappointment from the entrees on Chef Johnson's menu was Crab Cakes ($22). The cakes were too salty, contained too much filler and not enough jumbo lump meat.
Desserts are $6. With the exception of house-made Creme Brulee, they are up-scale frozen products brought in from outside.
The wine list offers low-end wines as well as top of the line. Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet is $26, while Joseph Phelps Insignia is $225 (which I think is perhaps the lowest price I have seen for that wine in a Pittsburgh restaurant). Glasses range from $7-$10 for a 6-ounce pour. On Tuesdays, all full bottles of wine are sold at 50 percent off, making the bottle of Penfolds $13!
Although the kitchen of Oliver or Twist performed well, service is another matter. Arriving at the door with reservations, we had a long wait before anyone acknowledged our presence. The waitresses were friendly but not very professional. Water glasses went un-refilled. On one of my visits, bread was never offered. On a Tuesday night, when the restaurant was not very busy, waitresses talked to each other from one end of the dining section to the other or disappeared to visit with people sitting at the bar. At one point, someone noisily emptied ice from an icemaker near our table and then dumped the entire contents of the tub of ice into something at the bar, creating what sounded like a major rock slide. I saw a waitress setting a table, carrying the wine glasses with her fingers inside the rim of the glass.
Olive or Twist has live entertainment Wednesdays through Fridays. Wednesday is live jazz and blues, Thursday is Sinatra night with Guy Matone and Friday is Mark Pipas.
At Happy Hour, 5-7 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, appetizers are half-price, draft beers are $2.50 a pint and the entire list of 31 martinis (10 ounces) are all $6.
Don't make the mistake that I made for so many years when you walk past Olive or Twist on Sixth Street in the Cultural District. This is as much a restaurant with a martini bar as it is a martini bar with a restaurant.
First Published March 15, 2007 12:00 am