I went to a lovely luncheon recently at…Olive Garden!  I was a tad surprised to be eating there myself, but they were rolling out their new menu, (which they herald as “the most significant menu evolution in the restaurant’s history,”) so they invited a group of top Los Angeles restaurant writers to try it out.

As with most chain restaurants, I hadn’t been to an Olive Garden for very many years.  (Too many restaurants in the world, far from enough time.)  But I was anxious to try it, especially since it’s now located in my old reviewing ‘hood of Culver City.  (In case you guys forgot, or never knew to begin with, I was the Culver City News restaurant critic just a few years ago.  I really appreciate that I still hear from my former readers, asking me to come back!  If only I had time to do so!)

Smashed chicken meatball sandwich with fries. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The smashed chicken meatball sandwich with fries. Photo by Karen Salkin.

I loved the way this event was done.  We got to sit at any of a number of group tables in one area of the gigantic eatery, and everything was served family-style.  They brought out many different dishes, so there was at least something for everybody, and just about everything for most.  My guest, Marcia, and I are both picky eaters, but we still left totally full and content.

We’ll get to the fun menu in a minute, but, as I’m sure everyone knows, restaurants are about more than the food.  They’re made-up of so many components, but none more important than the personnel, in my opinion.  (Well, except for cleanliness, but that’s a story for another time.)

And this Olive Garden excelled in that category.  Yes, they were, of course, on their best behavior because we were an invited group, but I can always tell phoniness, and this was all very genuine, on the parts of everyone there, from the lovely greeting we received as we entered to the servers to the managers to the bussers.  Even a waiter who admired my scarf when I was exiting the rest room was personable, and he could not have known from whence I came.

One extra mile they went was lovely, and right after my own heart.  I absolutely hate wasting food, and know that it’s never an embarrassment to ask to have leftovers wrapped-up to take home, although I know that many people still cringe at having to ask.  However, since this was all served family-style, to a table of virtual strangers, even I would not have asked for doggie bags.

The Salmon Bruschetta. Photo by Karen

The Salmon Bruschetta. Photo by Karen

But, from the very first salad, the servers asked right away if they could pack-up the left-overs for any of us.  When my table-mates all politely declined, I was happy to accept the offer.  So, they happily boxed it for me, and did so with several other dishes because the portions were indeed generous, and we were trying several.  They made those of us who did it feel comfortable, which I so appreciate. At the end, one of the guys even packed-up their signature break sticks for us!

It worked-out well for everyone concerned because, since I don’t eat most fish, I brought the Salmon Bruschetta, one of the new menu items, home to my salmon expert, Mr. X, and he loved it! He said, “It was really good.”  He’s truly an expert on that dish, and he couldn’t stop raving over this one. And it turns-out that the accompanying risotto has crabmeat in it, which he doesn’t even like, but this time he did.  So, I got a third reviewer out of the deal.  Wait–actually, a fourth one, too, because I heated-up the paccheri pasta with creamy sun-dried tomato and chicken meatballs, (a dish you can “create” yourself,) the next day for Steph, my trusty intern, and she said, “The pasta was delicious! I haven’t been to Olive Garden in a long time, so I’m impressed with this new menu item.”

The Chicken Abruzzi. Photo by Karen Salkin.

The Chicken Abruzzi. Photo by Karen Salkin.

And the left-overs just continued to get more delicious. At the actual luncheon, I wasn’t that interested in the Chicken Abruzzi (an Olive Garden Specialty,) because I spied a lot of lemon on it, which I usually eschew. But I decided to give it a go at home, because, at only 540 calories a pop, and containing kale and cannellini beans, it’s oh-so-good for us.  And I couldn’t get enough of it!  I was shocked at how much I loved this dish!

But let’s get back to the in-eatery fare we sampled.  The invite told us that “Olive Garden’s new menu is designed to appeal to the evolving palettes and preferences of casual dining guests, while providing guests with more options to customize their meal experience at both lunch and dinner.”  To that end, they made a lot of changes to the existing menu, both for lunch and dinner, including a “lighter” section (that features the above-mentioned Chicken Abruzzi,) and a “create-your own-pasta,” one, (such as the paccheri pasta with creamy sun-dried tomato and chicken meatballs that Steph liked.)

We tried two salads that are interestingly done–they’re both the same basic salad with their popular dressing, but you can order different “topper” combos for it.  Clever.  Everyone at my table enjoyed them, and I especially liked the one with chunky mozzarella bites and trendy kale.  Marcia and I both appreciated the sautéed shrimp served on creamy polenta, while my favorite dish was the “smashed” chicken meatball sandwich with roasted bell peppers and mozzarella on a focaccia bun, which was served with garlic parmesan fries.  As a matter if fact, I’ve been craving it every day since this luncheon!

Photo by Karen Salkin.

Photo by Karen Salkin.

You know I love party favors, and was happy that Olive Garden didn’t make us wait for the one they gave.  At every place setting, there was a bottle of their signature salad dressing. I used mine for lunch the very next day!!!  Also, realizing how full we were, but knowing that most people really do want dessert, they ended our meal with Salted Caramel Tiramisus already in to-go containers! So, those sweet treats were an added goodie.

I left there with a newfound respect for Olive Garden.  I’ll try to find time to go back and do a real “Karen” review of them for you sometime this summer, and have high hopes that the good times will continue.


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