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During my last visit to Italy, olive growers shared the key to a bountiful harvest: branches that get plenty of light and air, with abundant space for birds to fly through without touching a single leaf.
With a practiced hand and expert balance of the best of several culinary influences—those of France, Italy, and John’s Island—chef Jacques Larson has likewise brought new light and fresh air to the recently unveiled spring menu at Wild Olive. He and his chefs strike gold time and again, incorporating foods gleaned from local farms and waters as they deliver fresh, simple salads; delicate pastas; and intricate seafood dishes that sing with the season.
Created by former chef and co-owner Fred Neuville, Wild Olive has been a favorite among locals and resort island visitors since opening in 2009. Memories of early offerings include unusually light eggplant parmesan, creamy risottos, and good house-made pastas served in this sunny oasis at the edge of busy Maybank Highway. Such key elements continue on the current menu. A knowledgeable and attentive staff still greets guests with genuine pleasure, and the relaxed atmosphere remains informal. Thriving olive trees, a fragrant herb garden, and soft music are excellent omens as guests approach the restaurant’s sprawling rooms, where they can choose from seating in the sun porch; the bar with its long community table; the quieter back dining room; or the front room, which offers a glimpse of the busy culinary stage. Agriculturally themed photos, some showing local farmers at work, and Italian country furnishings create a warm, rustic setting that pleasantly envelops the crowd.
Chef Larson has wisely retained many popular items from the former menu while adding his own influences and specialties that reflect his distinct technique and passion. During prior visits, we reveled in wild mushroom and escarole risotto, ricotta gnocchi with North Carolina wild boar ragu, eggplant parmesan featuring nontraditional basil pesto and fresh arugula, and grilled South Carolina quail with a vinegar and veal-stock reduction.
On a recent evening, we discovered tender asparagus served with poached Sea Island egg, baby arugula, and shards of creamy parmesan—exquisite! House-made potato gnocchi was a compatible partner for pan-seared sea scallops served with bits of asparagus, yellow squash, zucchini, grape tomatoes, and fresh thyme in a truffled butter sauce. As a special treat, two vibrant soft-shell crabs artfully presented in the shape of a giant crab were nestled in a delicate roasted tomato butter sauce and paired with spicy ramps, asparagus, spring peas, and a side of horseradish potatoes.
The highly recommended shrimp piccata consisted of a generous portion of lightly battered, fresh local shrimp, perfectly cooked and served over thickly crusted fried green tomatoes. Spectacularly seasoned with ample lemon, lots of baby capers, white wine, and butter, the explosion of flavor at first bite led to a piquant finish lent by the caper berry garnish. A side of al dente white beans, escarole, and divinely salty pancetta was an excellent complement for the shrimp and crabs.
We toasted the superb food throughout the meal, beginning with Kir Royale and enjoying Crooked Row sauvignon blanc with the seafood. Selections from the long—and well- priced—wine list are offered for $19 a bottle on Sunday and Monday nights.
To finish the meal, we indulged in desserts prepared by pastry chef Lindsey Cooke. The silken dark chocolate and white chocolate semifreddo was served with crushed pistachios and fresh strawberries for a delicious and refreshing contrast in textures, while the subtly sweet deep-dish almond cake was accompanied by vanilla gelato and sweet balsamic strawberries, creating an elegant version of old-fashioned strawberry shortcake.
Throughout our dining experiences at Wild Olive, we were repeatedly amazed at the depth of flavor and intricate nuances of chef Larson’s wide range of specialties. From the asparagus salad to the pastas, seafood, and meat entrées, each creation was uniquely memorable and each bite a delicate aria to the season, giving more reason than ever to make the drive to John’s Island to celebrate the spring and summer harvest.
2867 Maybank Hwy., John’s Island, (843) 737-4177,
Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.
Average entrée: $19