Olive Garden launches biggest menu evolution in its history

Restaurant review by Tim Collins

My family loves to eat out and especially if we have an opportunity to try things that we have never had before. So, when I found out that Olive Garden has just added over twenty new items to their menu, Dylan (my son) and I decided to head over to their location by Arbor Place Mall and experience some of the items we had never tried before.

The interior and exterior are modeled after a farmhouse in the Tuscany region of Italy.

The interior and exterior are modeled after a farmhouse in the Tuscany region of Italy.

First, let me preface by saying that it has been a while since I had been to Olive Garden.  We’ve always had a good service there, and felt like it was a good value. But we always have associated the restaurant with pasta dishes and it’s hard to get all of us to agree on one type of food. After our visit tonight, I can see that our perception was a bit narrow, as the restaurant has so much more than just pasta, especially with the new menu items they just added.

When we arrived at 5 PM on a Wednesday, the restaurant was not busy, and we were seated right away. The waitress (Amanda) and the General Manager (Greg Balogh) were both very enthusiastic about the new items, and had a thorough knowledge of what was on the menu. Greg explained that the reasoning behind the menu changes were so that the restaurant can remain “trendy” by delivering a cuisine that is focused on what customers have indicated they desire in a casual dining experience.

Among these are “small plates” which give diners a chance to experience several dishes in addition to their main course. These are priced at $5 or less. There are five new small plates in addition to the three existing small plates.  The expanded menu also gives pasta lovers many choices with the Cucina Mia (translated “My Kitchen”) dish. Dishes is probably a more appropriate term though because this option gives diners the ability to create their own Italian classic by choosing from six pastas (including a gluten-free Rotini), five sauces, and adding an optional topping from four choices. So, in essence, there are really well over 100 new pasta dishes if you take into consideration all of the possible combinations. Four new “lighter fare” items mean there are now 7 entrees under 575 calories. The many new non-pasta items include two chicken entrees, four seafood selections, and a parmesan-alfredo crusted filet. Salad fans will cheer the option of adding Antipasti ItalianMeats and Cheese, or Roasted Tomato Caprese as a “Salad Topper” for an extra $2.99.

Parmesan Olive Fritta

Parmesan Olive Fritta

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Polenta Shrimp alla Greca (left) Crispy Risotto Bites (right)

Dylan and I decided to start out with three different small plates. Our absolute favorite small plate was the Parmesan Olive Fritta, which is a bite sized blend of olives and Italian cheeses, lightly fried, and then served with a choice of citrus aoli or gorgonzola cream dipping sauces. We tried both sauces and the dish was absolutely outstanding using either sauce. The olives were not overpowering, so you could still taste the cheese.

Dylan wanted us to try the new Polenta Shrimp alla Greca, which was sautéed shrimp (perfectly cooked by the way), served on creamy polenta and topped with a blend of olives, capers, and tomato sauce. I am not a huge shrimp fan, but I liked the dish too because of the contrasting flavors, which blended nicely in my mouth.  There was no fishy taste to the shrimp at all.

Greg, the General Manager, also recommended that we try the Crispy Risotto Bites. This was a blend of Italian cheeses and rice, lightly fried, and served in a bit of marinara sauce. It was quite good as well, so I would recommend any of the three small plates that we had.

SaladAntipasti copy

Antipasti Italian Meats & Cheese Salad Topper

CapreseSalad copy

Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad Topper. Notice the size of the bowl compared to an average size adult hand!

Since there were two new Salad Toppers, we figured we’d try both of them. I figured we could split each salad and then move on to the main course after we finished them. However, a salad at Olive Garden could really make a meal in and of itself. It’s a tremendous value, especially when you consider that it comes with unlimited refills for $5.99. The two salad toppers that are new to the menu really add a nice touch, and are worth the extra $2.99 in my opinion. The Antipasti Italian Meats & Cheese features hard salami, genoa salami, pepperoni and good size thin slices of mozzarella cheese. The Roasted Tomato Caprese had nice chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese, roasted tomato, bell pepper, basil, kale and an extra virgin olive oil drizzle. It was a good vegetarian option. Everything was very fresh. If you ever just want to go out for a nice salad as a meal, this is a great option.

It was quite difficult to decide on an entrée, as all of the new items sounded so amazing. We decided that we would try three entrees and bring back the leftovers, and the restaurant was kind enough to split all three entrees in half so that we could each try all of them.

Cucina Mia - this is a pasta dish you can create using a number of combinations of pastas, sauces, and toppings. This was Gluten Free Rotini.

Cucina Mia – this is a pasta dish you can create using a number of combinations of pastas, sauces, and toppings. This was Gluten Free Rotini.

Greg encouraged us to try the Cucina Mia, which is the dish where you pick your pasta, your sauce, and optional topping. Earlier he had mentioned that one of the pastas was gluten free. He added that they previously had gluten-free pasta, but it was kind of lacking in taste in his opinion, but that the new gluten free pasta was so good that he could not distinguish the taste from the other pastas on the menu. We figured we’d choose that, along with the “seasonal selection” for the sauce, which was an asiago alfredo sauce. And we added chicken meatballs. I thought the pasta, which was made from corn, was quite good, although the texture was a bit different from other pastas, but not in a bad way. The sauce was extremely good, and I would definitely order it again without a second thought. The chicken meatballs were a lighter, and probably healthier, alternative to beef.

Parmesan Crusted Filet with Sauteed Italian Vegetables and Roasted Garlic

Parmesan Crusted Filet with Sauteed Italian Vegetables and Roasted Garlic

Our second entrée was the 6-ounce Parmesan-Crusted Filet. It came with sautéed Italian vegetables and roasted garlic. The crust gave it a nice flavor, and I was kind of glad that it was not a huge cut of meat at this point, because I had already enjoyed so much other delicious food.

Crab Topped Chicken with fresh spinach and garlic mashed potatoes

Crab Topped Chicken with fresh spinach and garlic mashed potatoes

Orange Cream Soda

Orange Cream Soda

The entrée that we liked the most was the new Crab Topped Chicken. This was pan-seared chicken breasts topped with crab meat in a lemon-cream sauce on a bed of fresh spinach leaves, and served with garlic parmesan mashed potatoes. The sauce gave it a very light flavor. In addition to the great taste, it was also very appealing to look at.

Caffe Mocha - definitely delicious!

Caffe Mocha – definitely delicious!

One of the cool things Dylan discovered about Olive Garden was that they serve home made cream sodas. He was planning on ordering a caramel cream soda, but Amanda, the waitress, suggested the orange cream soda, and he was not disappointed.  The Caffe Mocha picture on the front of one of the menus looked too good for me to pass up, with its mound of whipped cream on top, so I ordered it along with dessert, and it was a great way to close out the meal.

Wild Berry Cake - perfect blend of sweetness and tartness to finish the meal.

Wild Berry Cake – perfect blend of sweetness and tartness to finish the meal.

Greg suggested that we try a piece of the Wild Berry Cake for dessert. Since we were both extremely well-fed at that point, we decided to split it. This was a great alternative to a super-sweet dessert, which, on a full stomach can leave one feeling kind of queasy. It was light, and had a nice sweetness to it, but at the same time had a tartness from the berries which were on top and inside the cake. It was so moist and fresh – an absolutely perfect way to close out the meal.

The service at Olive Garden was also outstanding. Our drinks were constantly filled, and Amanda, the waitress, was frequently checking to be sure everything was to our liking. Greg stopped by several times as well, and I saw him checking on other customers as well.

Dylan remarked that eating here was kind of an “experience” in addition to a meal. The décor and design of the building promotes a relaxing atmosphere with soft pastel colors, lots of wood, and open spaces. Greg told us an interesting fact about the design of the building. Shortly before the Douglasville restaurant was built, the president of Olive Garden took a trip to the Tuscany region of Italy and was struck by the architecture there. He decided that he wanted the restaurants to not only reflect the food, the atmosphere, and the warmth of the people in that area, but the architectural designs and interiors of buildings in that region. So an architect from that region designed a restaurant blueprint for Olive Garden, and the Douglasville location was one of the first restaurants to reflect the look of an Italian farmhouse. The corridor between the restaurant entrance and the dining area is meant to reflect the look of a street in a village. Even the plates on the wall, curtains, and decorations in the restaurant were modeled after an Italian farmhouse.

We also noticed that it seemed like the employees enjoyed working there. Maybe that’s because Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster, among others, has been named one of the “Top 100 Places to Work” by Fortune Magazine for four consecutive years. When you take into account that they are the only restaurant chain to ever make that list, it becomes more obvious why the quality of the personnel seems so good from the customer’s vantage point. Our waitress has worked at the Douglasville location for three years, and Greg has been the General Manager here for seven years, and with the company for 14 years.

Each year, Olive Garden sends 100 of its managers to the Culinary Institute of Tuscany in Italy, and this year Greg was selected to go. The purpose of the one-week trip is for the management to experience cultural immersion, learn as much as possible about Italian culture and service style, and to visit different cities in the region. “It was the trip of a lifetime,” said Greg. The goal is for the manager to bring his experiences back to the local restaurant to try to create an even more authentic atmosphere for the guests.

Olive Garden opens at 11 AM seven days a week. From Sunday through Thursday it closes at 10 PM, and on Friday and Saturday it closes at 11 PM. The Douglasville Olive Garden is located at 6710 Douglas Blvd., or you can visit one of 17 other restaurants located throughout the Atlanta area. For more information you may call them at 770-577-5858, or you may visit them online at www.olivegarden.com.

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