Southern State of Mind
A greyhound bus trip inspires an imaginative, contemporary approach to down-home dishes—and some of the best biscuits ever.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—unless it’s on a Greyhound bus.
It was the winter of 2012, and 34-year-old Michael Fojtasek had some time between jobs. He and his partner, Grae Nonas, 28, also a chef, badly wanted to open a restaurant in Austin, their adopted home. Fojtasek had grown up in Dallas in a family with Southern roots, and his enthusiasm had rubbed off on Nonas, who is from New England.
So he bought a ticket, climbed aboard the Dog, and proceeded to eat his way through many of the South’s most creative and celebrated contemporary dining venues—Husk, the Catbird Seat, the Macintosh, and more, through Nashville, Athens, Charlotte, and Charleston. Two years later, he hit the road with Nonas, this time in a car, to check out the other end of the spectrum: classic, down-home spots like the Bean Palace, Miss Mary Bobo’s, and Niki’s West. Back home, they took what they had seen and threw it in a pot, spiked it with their own ideas, and let the whole thing simmer. The result is Olamaie, a restaurant that is a little bit old, a whole lot new, and unlike anything Austin has seen before.
Pronounced “Oh-la-may,” the venue debuted a little more than a month ago to considerable local and national interest (Eater.com had named it one of the year’s most anticipated openings). In keeping with its modern slant, the restaurant’s look avoids both the checked-curtain cuteness of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and the frowsy gentility of, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Instead, the eighty-plus-year-old cottage that previously housed restaurants Sagra and Mars (not to mention seventies-era head shop Oat Willie’s) has been completely transformed by Dallas design firm Staffelbach. The outside is painted white with crisp black trim. Inside, tones of taupe and gray set off high white coffered ceilings, softened by artwork, fresh flowers, and pictures of four sweet-looking Tennessee women—Foj-tasek’s mother through his great-great-grandmother—all named Olamaie. The chefs compare the space to a lovely old Southern home. To me, it felt like a coolly modern country club.
It would have been so easy for Fojtasek and Nonas to crank out a list of all-time hits: fried chicken, cornbread, shrimp and grits, cream peas, pork chops. But they didn’t travel a thousand miles to do the obvious. Things get interesting as soon as you order a starter like “raw FL snapper”. This turns out to be the chefs’ Southern take on Italian crudo. But it’s unlike any crudo you’ve ever had: if you carefully balance a little bit of everything on your fork, you end up with a wonderful bite of fresh fish, crunchy puffed Chinese black rice and benne seeds, and bright, aromatic basil and watermelon. And not only is it delicious, it’s an education for those of us not from the South: benne seeds are “heirloom sesame seeds,” as Fojtasek puts it, and Chinese black rice is the ancient variety sometimes called “forbidden rice,” now grown in South Carolina.
In fact, with all the dishes, it’s as much fun to tease apart the modern variation as it is to taste it. Squab and okra purloo, for instance, plays with the South’s traditional rice stew. It’s a simple dish at heart, but uptown ingredients give it a new spin: pan-roasted slices of tender pink squab breast (imagine a cross between duck and quail) are lightly browned on their delectable fatty edges. Then they are carefully placed atop Carolina gold rice, an exceptionally flavorful variety that takes the grain to an entirely different level. Crunchy fresh okra and tart fermented cayenne peppers do the same duty as your grandmother’s pickle-relish tray (and also distract your attention from a sadly oversalted broth).
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of the “pork chop,” because I didn’t see a whole chop anywhere in the vicinity. Nor could I find any of the “charred peach” that allegedly came with it. What I did spot were thick-cut pieces of lightly smoked (and slightly tough) pork, some fresh peach slices, and an ebony-hued sauce that looked for all the world like Oaxaca’s black mole. When I asked the chefs about it later, they told me they make the sauce by “over-caramelizing” (read: blackening) peaches and pureeing them with a dash of lemon juice. The result is a dusky combination of fruit and smoke that is as compelling as it is mysterious.
But possibly my favorite dish of about a dozen tried was the so-called salad of gorgeous Maryland crabmeat. Creamy lumps of crab sat atop Carolina rice middlins (broken grains) with a dollop of mousse-like corn pudding on top, all decorated with popped sorghum grains (they look just like miniature popcorn). When the mousse melts into the rice, you’d swear you were eating a fantastic risotto. But just to keep things from getting too fancy, your server brings a small bottle of Tabasco to the table, so everybody can season the dish to their heart’s content.
No discussion of Olamaie would be complete, though, without a mention of biscuits. Good Lord, those biscuits. If the kitchen hasn’t run out—a limited number are made—you must not leave without trying them. Tawny gold on the outside, pearly white on the inside, they are the texture of silk velvet and so fresh from the oven that wisps of steam rise as you slather them with the condiment du jour, like honey butter or pimento cheese. In the September 1984 issue of this magazine, my friend and fellow biscuit maniac Steve Harrigan wrote about the most exceptional biscuits he had ever tasted (even better than his grandmother’s): “They were museum quality.” I cannot improve on that description.
Although the biscuit recipe—which the chefs worked on for months—will always be the same, the rest of the menu at Olamaie will change often. Says Fojtasek, “We’ll switch out a couple of dishes every day or so.” That should allow them plenty of opportunity to try not just ideas they picked up on their journey but also things they learned at the impressive list of restaurants where they have previously worked or apprenticed, including Per Se in New York, the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, and most recently, Animal and Son of a Gun in Los Angeles. Given the national press attention, it won’t be long before curious former colleagues are making their own long-distance treks to see what’s going on here.
1610 San Antonio, Austin
D Tue–Sat. $$$
Opened: August 26, 2014