(Elaia and Olio)

When we first heard about chef/owner Ben Poremba's innovative vision of turning an old South City house into a fine-dining restaurant (Elaia), and the retired service station next door to it into a wine bar (Olio), we were a bit unsure of just how it would work out. Since the dual concepts have been up and running for a while now, we finally stopped in for dinner at Elaia and are pleased to report the project is quite the success.

From the exterior, the restaurant looked every bit the charming, if anonymous, Southside brick home. There was no signage or anything else to belie what's happening within its walls.

While the house is fairly nondescript on the outside, the inside is anything but. The rear of the first floor space has been gutted and fitted with an enclosed commercial kitchen, while the front rooms serve as the dining room. In contrast to the throwback charm of the home's exterior, the interior was modern and minimalist, decorated in varying shades of gray and white, with walls augmented by spindly sconces sporting bare bulbs and a chandelier made with myriad kitchen utensils. All in all, the vibe was sophisticated and elegant, though a bit cold.

Like some other notable eateries around town, Elaia has gone the tasting menu route. The bill of fare featured four courses priced at $55 per person (not including wine). However, each course was available as a separate a la carte option, so diners could pick and choose what dishes they wanted to try without going all in—a really good option for those not particularly peckish.

We, on the other hand, dove right into all four courses, each of which offered four or five choices. Our server told us the menu changes often, based on seasonality and the creative direction of the kitchen. Choices for the first course included a gorgeous bowl of chilled pea soup, topped with a fold of smoked salmon and a bit of roe, and some creamy buratta (basically a soft cheese made with mozzarella and cream), drizzled with honey, olive oil and balsamic. Both dishes were finished at the table, always an elegant touch.

The veal sweetbreads we enjoyed next were superlative. Topped with a cauliflower tehini and some fried capers, it was as tender as the most prime cut, with none of the toughness associated with organ meats. The gnocchi, deftly prepared with just a bit of chive and preserved lemon, was equally as satisfying. It paired quite well with a glass of Albrecht Brut Rose ($10), a crisp, dry sparkler.

Course No. 3’s delights included duck breast and striped bass. The slices of duck came with a bit of sweet butternut squash puree, some crisp snap peas for contrast and a scattering of gizzards, which were as tender as the sweetbreads. The bass was topped with a bit of grapefruit for an interesting touch of color and tang.

For dessert, a flaky choquette and some ‘chocolate and coffee,’ (a flourless chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, mocha mousse and some 14k gold flecks as garnish) fit the bill nicely.

Service was exceptional and the wine pairings, courtesy of GM Andrey Ivanov and assistant beverage director Brandon Kerne, both award-winning sommeliers, were spot-on.

The Elaia experience was comfortable, intimate and most importantly, delicious. We can't wait to return to Tower Grove to sample what Olio has to offer.

-Elaia, 1634 Tower Grove Ave., 932-1088, elaiastl.com

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