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Where the Mediterranean Meets The Midwest

Cover Image for Where the Mediterranean Meets The Midwest
By Chris LaMorte
Posted
Categories:Interview

Time, space, and mushrooms. 

When Ben Poremba starts talking about his restaurants, don’t be surprised if the conversation hits any one (or all) of those topics. Though we should probably mention that those mushrooms are the hen of the wood variety.

The founder of the Bengelina Hospitality Group in St. Louis, Israeli-born Poremba has lived in St. Louis for 25 years. His lauded restaurants include the contemporary take on Israeli/Mediterranean cuisine at Olio and its upscale neighbor Elaia as well modern Mexican favorite, Nixta. All located in St. Louis’s up-and-coming Botanical Heights neighborhood, these restaurants take an expansive view of what they offer to guests.

“We’re doing very interesting things, in interesting parts of town, and in interesting buildings,” Poremba says. “So we try to give people a really good experience. Not just the food experience. A thorough experience. A historical, cultural, multisensory experience.”

We grabbed a few moments with the busy chef to get a sense of what it takes to make that happen. 

Tock: You’ve described Olio’s cuisine as “Middle-Terranean.” What do you mean by that term?

Poremba: I called it that when I opened it up, because people didn’t quite understand what Israeli food was. To me, Israel is the epitome of the cross- cultural aspect of the Mediterranean. Take Tel Aviv as your starting point and start going up north and you’re in in Lebanon and Syria and Turkey, and then Greece and then move on, and you’re in Italy, and then you keep going and you’re in Spain, and you keep going and you’re in North Africa, Morocco to Algeria, to Tunisia, to Egypt, to Libya, and then you’re back in Israel. The inspirations are historical. This is the Mediterranean as one region as opposed to its respective countries. 

Tock: But from the Middle East, you somehow got to Mexico because you opened Nixta, a contemporary Mexican restaurant. How did your culinary journey take you there?

Poremba: The presence of Mexican talent in American restaurants is undeniable. I mean, I don’t know of a single restaurant in the country that doesn’t have a Mexican or, for that matter, a Central American employee in the kitchen. And Bengelina is no different. We’ve become friends and family, and when they cook Mexican food, I just feel this is not the kind of food you’re going to get in a Mexican restaurant here. So I felt that we could offer something that didn’t exist at the time, especially in St. Louis. But I still had the approach that we have at all our restaurants that is very clean, very contemporary. 

Interior image of Nixta restaurant in St. Louis Missouri
Nixta

Tock: What’s the best dish to highlight Nixta’s approach?

Poremba: Right now, my favorite thing on the menu is actually just simple enchiladas. It’s not your typical Tex Mex, with tons of cheese and sour cream and all that stuff. It’s just a simple homemade corn tortilla rolled with either rotisserie chicken or smoked pork, and very, very little Oaxacan cheese to make it melty. Then we put two different kinds of chili sauces, one green one and one red one, on the same plate. So they’re calling them divorciadas, the divorced enchilada. In the red enchilada, in addition to dried guajillo peppers, we also use one of my favorite dried chilies from Turkey, called Urfa, which has kind of a dark, raisiny, smoky flavor.

 

“We’re doing very interesting things, in interesting parts of town, and in interesting buildings”

Tock: Now let’s talk about fall menus. Any seasonal ingredients you’re excited about?

Poremba: Generally speaking, we’re very influenced by the seasons. We’re looking forward to carrots, root vegetables, and parsnips. Also, usually late October, early November, my father-in-law and I do some mushroom foraging for hen of the woods, which are abundant in this part of town. I love the idea of urban foraging. Sometimes there’s a neighbor with an oak tree that when you look around, sure enough, you’ll find some nice big hen of the woods mushrooms. The fun thing about hen of the woods is that sometimes one mushroom is big enough for the entire service. 

Tock: You also have a very serious bread program at Olio, using local Missouri-grown grains. Why is that grain important to you?

Poremba: This wheat is from a company called Bono, which relies on a project that was called the Missouri Grain Project that set out to preserve the wheat industry in Missouri. It’s freshly milled flour, which is pretty amazing. It’s kind of another way of connecting to a place connected to where we are.

Olio Bar in St. Louis Missouri features faded walls from the building's former life as a service station.
“These walls have seen it all,” says Olio’s Ben Poremba.

Tock: Olio is located in a remodeled Standard Oil filling station from the 1930s. What does that add to the overall dining experience?

Poremba: I think buildings have a narrative and have an identity.

There’s a lot of references to what the building has been through. It’s a testimony to the ups and downs of this neighborhood. It was a working-class neighborhood when the gas station opened. Then, because of a lot of bad policy and a lot of systemic racism, this neighborhood was cut off by highways. Soon after, there was crime, and there was a lack of resources. And these walls have seen it all. 

So for example, at Olio, we sort of preserved some of the decay on many of the walls. We’ve had interior designers and architects, telling me to replace the tile or to paint over it. Instead, I just decided to preserve it because I think it’s so beautiful. And I think that these walls have something to contribute. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Make a reservation at Nixta, Olio, or Elaia

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