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Where two Route 95 off ramps, Kings Highway and a very busy Route 1 converge in Groton sits a veteran of the local restaurant scene, Olio Restaurant and Bar.
In this tight little restaurant, you may be nearer to the people at the next table than to your dining companion. At night, the formality of the black and white décor and the all-black uniforms of the waitstaff is softened by candlelight. During the day, natural light does the same as it pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows that line the south wall. The overall effect is urban, modern and confident.
Local restaurateur Carol Kanabis - whose CK Restaurant Group also owns Mystic's Bravo Bravo and Azu - opened Olio in the summer of 2002. Considering the economic climate and the competitive nature of the local restaurant scene, perhaps a little confidence is in order.
Jason Kowalski, chef at Olio since the beginning, offers a robust selection of daily specials alongside the large regular menu. Kowalski's specials read like a jumbled list of ingredients that seem impossible to combine. Here's an appetizer special from a recent visit: "Spinach gorgonzola bacon stuffed veal osso buco meatball, over truffle mashed potato with mushroom demi glace."
But perhaps this is the mark an exuberant chef, still excited by fresh ingredients, still innovating after nearly 14 years in the same kitchen.
On a recent Sunday night visit, I immediately fell for a salad special, "Burrata fresh mozzarella, baby arugula BLT salad, with crispy prosciutto bacon, heirloom Toybox tomatoes, crispy garlic bread, aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil."
But alas, they were out, so I opted for "Field greens with pecans, oranges, cranberries, apples and gorgonzola with balsamic dressing," $8.95, from the regular menu.
Both my husband and I chose our entrees from the specials, his a "Grilled Angus burger, sunny side egg, truffle cheese, carmelized shallots, homemade brioche roll with crispy hand cut French fries"; and mine, "Shrimp and Linguini Pasta Paisano, Buttercrumb, fresh mozzarella and white wine baked."
There are two problems with the Olio menus. First, they're difficult to read because the lighting is so dim. More than one diner on this night was reading by the glow of a smartphone. Second, there are no prices on the specials menu.
We wouldn't learn until our bill arrived that my husband's burger was $14.95 and my pasta special was $23.95. Nothing to hide there.
Our drinks - "The Sunshine State," made with orange flavored vodka, Cointreau and orange juice, $10.75 each - arrived with a basket of warm bread, the aroma of which made it impossible to resist. For dipping, a fruity, garlic-infused olive oil came in a little dish whose rim held a drift of freshly grated parmesan. A nice touch.
My salad was lightly but thoroughly dressed. Its beautifully prepared orange supremes - orange segments minus the membrane - were fresh and juicy, a good match for the buttery gorgonzola.
My husband's burger was stacked high and was very messy to eat - tasty but difficult.
On my pasta, the shrimp were perfectly cooked and the diced tomatoes had a lovely, fresh flavor. The "buttercrumb," from the description, were not crispy breadcrumbs, as I had anticipated, but instead were soggy. Not a great addition, but overall, a good dish.
At a later, lunch visit, I tried a pomegranate spritzer, tall, cold and nonalcoholic. From the appetizer menu, I chose "Crispy flounder soft shell tacos with avocado, grilled corn, red radish, grape tomatoes, shaved romaine, sour cream tarter sauce and chipotle salsa picante," $12.95.
The fixings were piled high on two flour tortillas and crowned with a wedge of avocado. The fish was indeed crispy. The chipotle salsa was more of a smoky ketchup, but it was great on the taco. Overall, a fun, flavorful lunch.
Olio isn't everyone's cup of tea - and it's a good thing, because everyone wouldn't fit inside. But for my money, it's a great room, day or night, in which to enjoy some consistently creative cuisine made with fresh ingredients
33 Kings Highway, Groton (860) 445-6546
Cuisine: New American
Atmosphere: Upscale casual
Service: Very friendly and knowledgeable
Prices: Dinner entrees, $15-$30; lunch, $10-$20
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Main dining room and bar are a couple of steps down from the level that includes the entrance, bathroom and secondary dining room. Pretty tight dining area. Not a lot of room to maneuvering. Lighting is very dim. in innovative combinations.