The minute I saw Olivia—with its sleek stone, glass, and wood digs—I immediately thought, “Wow, they sure planned that before the recession.” The very idea of getting big-name Austin architectural designer Michael Hsu to do a restaurant from the ground up on a major street not far from downtown seems almost quaintly removed from today’s reality.
Be that as it may, executive chef—owner James Holmes (formerly with the Alamo Drafthouse Village) and chef de cuisine Morgan Angelone (who previously headed up Asti’s kitchen) are going full speed ahead with their south-side venture. So I say, let’s help them pay off those nervous investors.
The menu changes slightly every day, but one thing I hope they keep indefinitely is the brilliant Watermelon Salad. With a foundation of arugula backed by mint, kalamata olives, ricotta, and lime vinaigrette, it was a fantastic ensemble of jazzy flavors. (Once melon season is over, surely they can substitute citrus.) The beet-and-goat-cheese salad (left) came off wonderfully too, but the Beautiful Salad proved just a smidge dull despite its glam looks, Granny Smith apple slices, and lemon-tarragon vinaigrette.
The chefs are making a big deal here of local ingredients, with an average of fifteen farms and growers represented on the menu on any day, so you have to assume the carbon footprint is petite (I’d guess, oh, a size 4). Central Texas—based Richardson Farms supplied the grass-fed pork for a grilled, molasses-glazed whopper of a chop. It had a wonderful flavor but was on the tough side, probably because it was nearly fat-free and a touch overcooked.
My favorite dish of the evening, white-wine coq au vin, came from Alexander Family Farms, in Del Valle, and a fine chicken it was. Actually, the dark meat, all drenched in winey juices, was the best; the white meat came off a little stringy. But the cooking liquid, infused with the flavors of apricots and olives, gave a delightfully well-rounded boost to the best potatoes I’ve had in ages (from Boggy Creek Farms, in Austin).
When I heard that Olivia had inaugurated Sunday brunch, I rushed back to find the fashionable dining room feeling far more casual when flooded with light. This time my eye fell on the shrimp-and-Gouda grits. Turned out that the wonderful, rough-textured Anson Mill grits came from South Carolina (hardly local, but they were organic). The wild shrimp were the biggest revelation, though. Caught a day and a half earlier on the Gulf Coast and never frozen, these heads-on babies were more tender and had a subtly different, less shrimpy taste than usual. And each one varied in size. It made me aware of how much my expectation of “normal”—not just in shrimp but in everything edible—is shaped by mass production and farm raising.
I must confess that I’m not always persuaded by restaurants that ballyhoo local this and organic that. Are most of them trying all that hard? Olivia, though, seems committed. If its kitchen remains as consistently interesting and innovative as in its first three weeks of supporting local growers, I just might have to change my tune. Beer & wine. 2043 S. Lamar (512-804-2700). Dinner Mon—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11, Sun 5:30—9. Brunch Sun 10:30—3. $$ + On the Web: olivia-austin.com