Try the South Austin foie gras at this hip new spot
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Nov. 7, 2008
Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm, 5:30-9pm
Olivia2043 S. Lamar, 804-2700
Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm; Sunday, 10:30am-2:30pm
& 5:30-9pm; bar opens at 5pm
James Holmes and Morgan Angelone are having the time of their lives, and the delight in what they are doing is apparent on every plate that emerges from the Olivia kitchen. Olivia's chef/owner and chef de cuisine met when Holmes was a chef instructor at the Texas Culinary Academy and Angelone (then Dishman) was a culinary student. "She was the best student I had, and I knew then that when I had my own restaurant, I wanted her in my kitchen," Holmes recalls. Today, they are working together in the kitchen at Olivia, the South Austin eatery named for Holmes' precious daughter. The cuisine they create reflects French and Italian culinary influences, serious technical skills, and a commitment to featuring local, organic ingredients on the often-changing menu. Holmes and his well-chosen, talented staff (both kitchen and front of the house) have pulled off one of the most confident and accomplished restaurant debuts this town has witnessed since the opening of Uchi.
Olivia is new from the ground up. The Michael Hsu-designed stone building with the slanted metal roof is set back a bit from the busy Lamar traffic, with walls of windows facing north. The comfortable front porch with river-stone fences faces east, looking out over a pleasant lawn. It is already a popular place for waiting or dining in temperate weather. Guests enter the restaurant through the bar and can enjoy wine or cocktails paired with a tempting bar menu (lamb sliders!) or proceed past the open kitchen to the dining room. The interiors of stone, wood, and glass are sleek and modern, but the room exudes warmth and comfort.
A group of women friends joined me for the inaugural brunch at Olivia in September, and the delightful meal demonstrated both the theory and practice at work in the kitchen here. The menu is relatively simple and very affordable compared to comparable brunches around the city. Shrimp and Gouda grits ($14) offered rich and creamy stone-ground grits topped with plump, lightly sauced Gulf shrimp. The picnic-style fried chicken ($12) is Alexander Family Farm chicken soaked overnight in buttermilk and then fried according to Holmes' grandmother's heirloom recipe, paired with warm, chunky potato salad and homemade pickles. The signature Olivia Benedict ($16) featured a split baguette topped with meltingly tender meat from braised, grass-fed beef short ribs and with perfectly poached eggs and a luscious hollandaise. Two farm eggs any style ($11) come with a choice of house-cured bacon or the house sausage patties, fries, and toast with tiny pots of homemade lemon curd and orange marmalade. All the house-made items such as lemon curd, marmalade, Gouda grits, bacon, and sausage are also available on the à la carte menu, along with apple pie topped with cinnamon ice cream ($6). The concept here is simple, fresh, flavorful food expertly prepared with careful attention to each and every detail.
On a more recent visit, five ladies joined me for a dinner at Olivia that included six appetizers, a salad, six entrées, and four desserts. Luckily, I'm blessed with friends who have adventurous palates and embrace the challenge of sampling and sharing multiple dishes in pursuit of a well-rounded review. Our knowledgeable and accommodating server provided us with small plates to facilitate our enthusiastic sharing of bites around the table. This dinner proved to be another stellar meal. We discovered extraordinarily sophisticated treatment of offal in both the exquisite lamb's tongue fricassee with apricot mustarda ($12, based on an old James Beard recipe) and sweetbreads ($24) nestled on an incredibly aromatic bed of truffled Parmesan risotto. These dishes contrasted with the elegant simplicity of a spinach salad ($9) with roasted cherries and toasted walnuts dressed in a Sherry vinaigrette, a superbly moist roasted half chicken ($19) paired with crimini mushrooms and rosemary-dusted potato chips, and a perfectly executed hanger steak ($25) with those crispy house fries. The lamb's tongue preparation is the true gourmand's discovery here – dainty, melt-in-the-mouth tender, and wonderfully complemented by the tangy apricots. More than one diner at our table was surprised by her appreciation of this exotic revelation, described by our server as "South Austin foie gras."
Pastry chef Sarah Jordan's elegant desserts offered just the right sweet ending to this marvelous meal. The duck-egg crème caramel ($8) could well be the most luxurious custard dessert I've ever tasted, and her warm apple Basque cake ($8) with cinnamon ice cream, drizzled with a spiked apple syrup, was a study in perfect fall flavor combinations. The excellent cheese plate ($18) offered three cow's milk cheeses, two from Texas and one from Vermont, served with whisper-thin homemade crackers and pots of homemade berry jam and local yaupon honey. Olivia is quite simply my new favorite restaurant. Bravo – we should all be taking this much pleasure in our work.
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