I don't disdain the anonymous downtown St. Pete Plaza Courtyard — I just never gave it much credit as a good spot for a restaurant. The idea of shops and cafes that face inward — instead of out toward the car and foot traffic streaming to and from nearby Baywalk — always seemed like a bad move. Cap it off with poor street signage and you've got a risky situation for businesses that rely on people actually noticing that they're there.
L'Olivier Bistro has managed to turn that problem into an asset. This little creperie and wine bar transformed the quaint courtyard into a cozy and secluded oasis of outdoor dining that feels deliciously isolated from the hustle and bustle of both Baywalk and St. Pete's waterfront. Wooden couches with comfy, colorful cushions. Umbrella-ed high-top tables with tall stools. Factor in the breeze from the bay and the shade from the office tower, and I'd even bet that L'Olivier's al fresco dining area is inhabitable in the depths of summer.
Oh, the food helps, to be sure. L'Olivier's menu is almost exclusively populated by crepes stuffed or topped with more than a dozen variations on sweet and savory. Go inside and you might see owner Olivier Cuevas pouring batter onto three wide, slightly mounded crepe machines, using a wooden tool to even it out, a few drips inevitably escaping the edges of the unrimmed surface.
And although the toppings range from good to exceptional, these thin pancakes are the star. Made from traditional buckwheat, mixed with organic white and wheat flours, they're tender but chewy, soft but elastic, and are at their best eaten basically plain.
To take advantage of this wonderful foundation, Cuevas limits what he puts into the crepes, relying on simple, fresh ingredients. Like slices of real ham covered in melted Emmenthal, sautéed mushrooms and thin slices of ripe tomato ($7.50). The Swiss cheese tends to dominate the experience, but fresh parsley and tart tomatoes manage to brighten it up a bit.
A similar problem taints a crepe stuffed with fruits de mer ($8.95) — in this case shrimp and a mild white fish — that comes with more of that assertive Emmenthal. There's so much garlic and butter, the whole thing tastes like a shrimp scampi wrap that's blanketed in cheese. It's tasty, but better when the wrap-to-stuffing ratio is weighted more toward the crepes.
L'Olivier's best options are more subtle combinations, especially those that combine a hint of sweet with the savory ingredients like brie, spinach, walnuts and honey ($8.95). The nuts and greens provide a big hit of bitter refreshment balanced by the fatty cheese and the light touch of sugary honey, allowing the crepe to shine through in each bite. Same with a combination of creamy blue cheese, tart Granny Smith apple and bitter walnuts ($8.95).
The Emmenthal works best when folded into a simple filling of softly scrambled eggs and stuffed into a crepe ($6) or worked into L'Olivier's slightly dense but immensely satisfying quiche ($7.50). The French know how to do eggs.
Although most of the dishes tend toward lighter fare, there are a few heartier options. L'Olivier's lasagna ($8.50) is built on crepes instead of pasta — an herbaceous meat sauce worthy of a fine Italian restaurant is pancaked between a half-dozen layers of the pastry. It's a bit mushier than traditional lasagna, but even here the crepes hold their own.
Although not trained as a chef, Cuevas uses recipes borrowed from his grandmother and mother back in Nice for the non-crepe dishes. There are bistro classics like coq au vin and beef bourgignon ($18), both served with a free glass of house wine that happens to be a stellar Cotes Du Rhone miles ahead of your typical restaurant plonk. That spicy Rhone works great with the beef, the tender morsels of meat coated with a rich sauce that's the essence of red wine and veggies.
As you might expect of a creperie, L'Olivier nails the desserts. The restaurant uses a different batter for the sweet crepes, a little lighter and infused with orange zest and a bit of fresh juice. You can go for the dramatically flambéed Suzette ($8) — it's a well-executed classic — or sliced strawberries and bananas topped by Nutella ($7), but again the best options are the simplest: Butter and sugar ($6) is exquisite, as are crepes spread with sweet fruit preserves ($7).
Although I love the crepes, I'll be more tempted to return to L'Olivier for the extra touches. The inside dining room is almost as pleasant as the exterior oasis, with hefty wood furniture, stone floors and plastered, earth-toned walls. The tables are in view of the restaurant's crepe-making stage and a giant plasma screen shows videos of performers like Charles Aznavour — the French Frank Sinatra, according to one server. The wine list is small, but exceptional. There are even a few Internet-connected computers hidden behind a low wall, turning the place into the only wine bar/creperie/Internet cafe I know of.
Most of the time, though, I'll be outside, glass of wine in hand and a slab of crepe close by, soaking up the serenity of this transformed office park, free from the busy downtown flow.