Thanks to chef Ben Poremba, the intersection of Tower Grove and McRee avenues in Botanical Heights is one of the most delicious corners in town. Home to Elaia, a fine-dining restaurant; Olio, its more casual sibling and French bakery La Patisserie Chouquette, the adjacent corner spots are all owned by Poremba.
He also co-owns Salume Beddu, an artisan sausage shop in Lindenwood Park. In addition, he’s opening a fried chicken restaurant in Botanical Heights and will lead the prepared-foods department at the upcoming Global Market in the Delmar Loop.
Despite all of his ventures, Olio and Elaia are the core of his business, Bengelina Hospitality Group. “They’re the heart of everything I do,” says Poremba. “Olio is more casual, rustic, with dishes to be shared,” he says. “Elaia is the sort of more sophisticated older sister.”
He characterizes Olio as “fun, vibrant, European if you will.” The vibe is casual, the food is Mediterranean and the cocktails are classic. In December, the foodie website Eater National named Olio one of the nation’s 19 hottest wine bars.
Elaia has the feel of a four-star restaurant. Diners can choose from an a la carte menu, a four-course prix fixe menu and a 10-course tasting menu. “We change the menu all the time – nightly, really,” Poremba says, “but sometimes we come up with a marriage of flavors we like to play with.”
Take his goat cheese mousse with Italian speck (smoked prosciutto) and toasted hazelnuts, a dish he will demonstrate at SLHL’s cooking school on Tuesday, March 4. “Those three things are really, really beautiful together,” Poremba says. Poached persimmons, dehydrated persimmon chips, crunchy meringues and a mustard-spiked cherry condiment called mostarda round out the plate. He’s paired the mousse with strawberries in the spring, with apples in the fall and with pears in early winter, swapping out the nuts and the seasonings to accent the fruit of the moment.
The restaurants’ food reflects Poremba’s heritage and experience. He’s a native Israeli, born to a mother who’s also a chef. He came to St. Louis as a high school senior and stayed for college. After college, he went home to Israel, studied cooking in Italy, then returned to St. Louis.
Both Poremba’s restaurants are intimate and both settings are unusual. Olio is housed in a renovated 1930s-era Standard Oil station that stood empty and dilapidated for 25 years or so. It can seat about 40 in the dining room and bar. In the summer, a large patio beckons, and patrons can enjoy a leisurely meal as they watch movies projected on a large wall.
An enclosed corridor connects Olio to Elaia. Elaia’s dining room holds about 30, and a private room offers seating for 12 with a view into the glass-enclosed wine cellar. The building was in complete disrepair and required a total rehab.
“This was a very tough neighborhood,” Poremba says. Botanical Heights is now a weekend destination for foodies, and Olio and Elaia are weekday hangouts for the neighborhood thanks to new and renovated housing as well as Poremba’s culinary gems.
A taste of the cooking school Menu
• Goat cheese mousse with Italian speck (smoked prosciutto) and toasted hazelnuts. “Those three things are really, really beautiful together,” Poremba says. Poached persimmons, dehydrated persimmon chips, crunchy meringues and a mustard-spiked cherry condiment called mostarda round out the plate.
• Pumpkin-filled tortelli pasta in browned sage butter topped with shavings of Parmesan cheese and spiced walnut cookie crumbs.
• Lamb loin with braised fresh endive, pickled mustard seeds and celery, and celery root purée. The lamb is roasted for almost four hours, until it’s medium-rare to medium, then browned to order. “It’s meltingly tender,” Poremba says.