Review: Olive & Finch was a bright idea, even if this fast-casual is sometimes too casual

Olive & Finch 1552 East 17th Avenue 303-832-8663

I dropped by Olive & Finch for a salad, and what I got was certainly green. But rather than a jumble of leaves and vegetables on a plate, my order came in a tall, clear cup, a product of this Uptown eatery's juice bar. While I try to eat healthy -- when I'm not reviewing, that is -- I'm not much of a juicer. But how could I resist something called Rejuvenate, billed on the menu as "the perfect recovery drink after your intense workout or a long night"? I didn't need help recovering from those particular situations, but if a few sips of the green stuff could help me recover from my food coma -- too many restaurants, too little time -- I was all in.

See also: A Closer Look at Olive & Finch

I'm not sure if the celery-heavy blend of apples, carrots, cucumber, spinach and the blue-green algae called spirulina perked me up. When it comes to overeating, you probably can't fight fire with fire; fasting is the only cure. But it did emphasize just how different this bakery and cafe is from chef-owner Mary Nguyen's other restaurants, both of which were historically Asian in focus. Here the emphasis is on healthy, affordable fare, much of it organic, served in a fast-casual setting for three meals a day. "Eating well shouldn't be cost-prohibitive," says Nguyen, who has traveled extensively in Europe and fashioned the eatery after the French traiteurs (prepared-food purveyors) and cafes she misses when she returns to the States.

If you've spent much time in France, you'll recognize the influence, though not necessarily in the decor. Benches and the community table are made from reclaimed wood. Lights are fashioned from canning jars. Water glasses are stacked in a weathered milk crate, and shelves are full of knickknacks such as teapots, candles and owls, giving the place a rustic-farmhouse feel. But the multi-paned zinc mirror that bounces light from the open garage door to the corner of the small dining room was imported from France, and if you look closely, you'll find similar French highlights on the menu, in the form of a chèvre chaud (hot goat cheese) salad, rillette with cornichons, and a croque madame.

And one of my favorite Olive & Finch dishes was a French classic called a tartine. Years ago, I ate open-faced sandwiches such as this for brunch in the Marais with friends, but I don't remember liking any of them more than I did Nguyen's version, with blue cheese, crispy crumbles of baked prosciutto, raw arugula and poached pears tinted purple from a stint in port. It was rich without being heavy, perfect for pairing with something else. I chose a spectacular salad of shaved fennel, orange and grapefruit supremes, Kalamata olives and whole-leaf Italian parsley -- a welcome palate-cleanser after the tartine's richness. If I could, I would make the combo my go-to at lunch. But I can't, because neither item is listed on the all-day menu, a roster of soups, sandwiches and salads that runs from morning to night. Instead, they -- along with many of the French dishes -- are part of the supplemental, dinner-only menu that starts at 5 p.m.

The rest of the day the board feels much more American. I skipped the popular Green Eggs & Sam, with mozzarella, spinach, pesto, tomatoes and eggs on focaccia, in favor of the Milano, with many of the same ingredients served over potato hash in a cast-iron skillet. (It's one of three hashes that can be ordered as a breakfast burrito.) Like the French tartine I liked so much, the Sunrise breakfast sandwich was open-faced, but this plate was born in the USA, with a more-is-better mentality: maple aioli, arugula, bacon, tomatoes, eggs and Swiss on crostini -- a combo that shouldn't have worked, but did. Chicken tortilla soup, a soup of the day, also worked well, with housemade vegetable stock loaded with hominy, black beans, green chiles and corn.

The Nico boasted similar flavors in its spicy mix of shaved flank steak, vegetables, chimichurri and ancho chile on a baguette. That sandwich, along with many others I tried, was as hefty as an overstuffed, foil-wrapped burrito. Indeed, so large was the Woody Wood that I had to wrap up half of it, even though it was filled with many of my favorite sandwich ingredients: house-roasted turkey (not the nitrite-filled deli kind), avocado, bacon and cranberry relish. Too bad the half-sandwich option, along with other soup-and-salad combos, was taken off the summer menu. Generosity is a good thing, but flexibility is also a virtue. Keep reading for more of the Olive & Finch review.

Even if that fennel-orange salad isn't offered all day, other salads are; they're one of the first things you see when you enter the restaurant. But these salads, in heaping bowls in the deli case by the door, are more mundane than that winsome fennel concoction. On my visits, I found the case stocked with kale salad; curried chicken salad; pasta with housemade pesto, peas and sun-dried tomatoes; and a soggy quinoa-and-black-bean salad that needed to be woken up with a splash of lime. I would have expected a more adventurous and healthy variety, such as the salads made with wheatberries, legumes and whole-grain pastas that I've loved in similar haunts on both coasts.

Baked goods also catch your attention when you enter, spilling out of baskets lined with brightly colored napkins (hand-sewn and available in the small market in the corner) by the register. All but the croissants and macarons are made in-house, and while they satisfy a sweet tooth, they have a ways to go before they tempt like the pastries in France. Brownies in mini-loaves were dry and hard around the edges. A lemon bar lacked lemon flavor, and a Rice Krispies treat was so hard, it tasted more than a few days old. Even the s'more -- a dessert disguised as a breakfast panini -- fell short, with a scant bit of marshmallow fluff and cinnamon butter, and melted milk chocolate that didn't come close to covering the bread. But French cafes aren't the places for dessert; for that, a trip to the patisserie is in order.

Speaking of French cafes, I wish Olive & Finch operated less like a traiteur and more like a cafe. Whether you come morning, noon or night, you order at the counter, pour your own water and bus your own dishes. That system works well for some meals, such as when women grab coffee with a friend, families share a casual lunch, and people hunker down with computers or books. But the format didn't pair as well with the Duroc pork tenderloin, crème-fraîche-spiked potato purée and accompanying salad of apples, fennel and shaved asparagus I enjoyed one night for dinner. For the same $15 price, I'd rather walk down the street to Nguyen's revamped P17, the Vietnamese spot turned neighborhood bistro that she refers to as "Olive & Finch's more refined, bigger sister," and sit down at a table to have my order taken.

Even for a fast-casual, service was sometimes sloppy. Never was I offered a side salad instead of chips, and several calls to arrange curbside delivery -- a helpful offering given the tight parking on East 17th Avenue -- went unanswered. It was uncomfortable to listen to employees yell at each other, and just as awkward to stand at the register for several minutes before the person working there stopped her conversation with another employee to make eye contact, much less take my order.

But those times when I was greeted at the door with a welcome, when employees at the counter took a moment to offer suggestions on what was good that night, I could see what Nguyen was going for when she tried to create a place that is "bright and happy, where you walk in and just feel good." Some of the food is already doing that -- including the green juice.

Select menu items at Olive & Finch: Rejuvenate $7/$13 Daily soups $4/$6 Poached-pear tartine $5 Shaved-fennel salad $6 Milano $9.25 Sunrise $8.95 S'more $6.50 Nico $11.25 Woody Wood $9.95 Pan-roasted pork tenderloin $15

Olive & Finch is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Contact the restaurant at oliveandfincheatery.com.

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