2867 Maybank Hwy. Johns Island
Prices: Expensive ($13-$26)
Serving dinner daily
There’s no doubt, the Wild Olive’s popularity extends across all geographic origins. Stand for a few minutes at the hostess stand and you’ll hear so many accents from above the Mason-Dixon you’ll quickly realize that outside of a barrier island golf course or some random bridge game at a Florida nursing home, you aren’t going to find a more concentrated gathering of able-bodied Yankees between Cuba and Myrtle Beach. Wild Olive’s location along the main run into Charleston from Seabrook and Kiawah means that if you want to get a seat, you’d better be prepared to wait. They take “limited reservations,” and you can forget trying for an early bird slot.
That’s not to say you won’t find a smattering of Southern drawls in there. The locals on Johns Island are flocking in droves as well, and the well-deserved reputation of Fred Neuville’s other Johns Island venture, the Fat Hen, makes Wild Olive a must-stop for the foodie set around town. We stopped twice, with mixed results.
The decor is downright cool, if overdone and a bit hokey. Jars of pickled vegetables line rustic hutches as you enter. An old shabby chandelier hangs from the live oaks outside, wrapped with Christmas tree lights. Given the slim budgets of the times, Neuville, or whoever he hired to design and build the place, did a good job making the inside feel original without breaking the bank.
Knotted ropes hang in rows from the ceiling and serve as room divisions. The signature light fixture is made from hundreds of plastic grape bunches, which hang from a galvanized wire frame and are lit from above with white lights. The Italian-themed wall hangings and murals of farm life look as if they originated in the last depression era.
There’s some good food to be had at Wild Olive, but uneven service and some real misses on staple preparations leave the jury out — at least for those going with the heightened expectation that this place will rival its French sister down the road.
The antipasta hits the high notes that one would expect. There’s fried squid ($7.95), a smattering of cheese and meat on an assorted appetizer plate ($13.95), and really well-prepared clams ($9.95) served in a spicy red sauce. The squid came out downright soggy, as if it was fried and then steamed; it was limp, mushy, insipid, and somewhat tasteless (or at least under-seasoned), but it was paired with an excellent garlic aioli for dipping. Artichoke hearts fared a bit better ($8.95), but they were over sauced, swimming in a sloppy amalgamation of garlic, oil, butter, and wine. The beef carpaccio ($9.95), however, was grand with thin slices of raw beef, a mound of greens, and white truffle oil drizzled on the plate.
Other starters include the “Pane alla Griglia” ($7.95-$10.95), which was a grilled flatbread smattered with a few vegetables, herbs, and cured meats, then smothered in oil. In fact, the bread oozed oil; it bended without cracking, sort of like a pizza biscuit.
The pasta fares much better. From the pappardelle with seafood ($14.95), to the rustic cavatelli ($13.95), lumped with sausage, threads of wilted chard, and lemony pesto, quality shines through. Correct texture defines the noodles, sauces are applied in good balance, and fresh cheese adorns when applicable.
If only the risotto followed suit. The rice at Wild Olive bears little resemblance to something one might find in Milan. It seems to be a longer grain, puffy, almost like a southern French pilaf flavored with stereotypical Italian flavors. So when you get the truffled risotto with sea scallops ($18.95), you can be sure that the scallops will be big, plump, meaty, and perfectly cooked, but maybe not so the rice. Depending on which server you ask, pasta and risotto portions come in whole or half portions — or on another night, no half portions allowed. That’s enough to confuse any Italian just looking for a decent primi piatti.
So I’ll go back to Wild Olive, but for now, I’m sticking to the entrées. They tend to be excellent. Perhaps the pheasant comes out a bit dry for the price ($18.95), and the “herb chestnut polenta” needs to be totally reworked — think corn-flavored cream of wheat — but the meat and seafood preparations satisfy. The diners at the next table (from NY) devoured a venison osso bucco ($24.95) with abandon, leaving only the bone. And it is indeed tasty, meltingly tender, and worth the trip to Johns Island. The well-executed chestnut-encrusted grouper ($19.95) is crispy in its bed of soft beans and mushrooms, with just a hint of pork to round out the plate. There is a nice skirt steak ($16.95) with a smacking marsala reduction, and old Italian-American standbys that are generally well prepared.
I’m hoping that the missteps at Wild Olive can be quickly corrected, because it’s a lovely little space, with the potential to become a favorite haunt for locals and tourists alike. But it’s not the Fat Hen, not yet, and perhaps that’s their problem. One goes expecting the same level of execution, the same deep soul and attention to detail that makes the latter so popular and has gotten Wild Olive off to such a great start. But as good as Fred Neuville can cook country French cuisine — and from 39 Rue du Jean to the Fat Hen he has proven his chops — he has something to learn about the soul of Italian cuisine.
There will be plenty who disagree with this assessment. They like the fact that yet another quality eatery has shown up on Johns Island, and they marvel at the bustle that already overwhelms the staff on busy nights. They fly in from Jersey and drive from across town. And they root for the proprietor that dared to move out of the city and hang out his shingle. Now he has two stages, and I hope that the instant popularity of the newcomer doesn’t distract him from putting on a stellar show.