By late last year, Shawn Cirkiel (the chef and restaurateur behind the Downtown gastropub parkside and its neighboring pizza joint, the backspace) had taken over the space abandoned by El Arbol, the South American restaurant housed in an architectural masterpiece in the gentle hills of the Bryker Woods neighborhood. The menu he imagined, centered on seasonal flavors sourced from Texas farms, eventually coalesced into Olive & June, which incorporates local ingredients into regional Italian cuisine.
Since opening this spring, Olive & June has earned the devotion of the well-heeled, the gluten-free, and even families, the latter being the target market for the fixed price Sunday night dinner ($35 per person, kids under 12 free). With no small amount of trepidation, we dragged our young children out for an early seating – armed with crayons, paper, and the most recent edition of Angry Birds loaded onto the fully-charged smartphones.
The family dinner itself started off encouragingly: the antipasto of seared tuna with cucumber was light, fresh, and unobtrusive. On its heels came a magnificent salad of butter lettuce, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and black pepper croutons. Foolishly trying to pace ourselves in the face of six courses, we only ate about half of the salad and have been kicking ourselves for not having taken the remainder home ever since. After that auspicious start, the kitchen stumbled with the pasta and main: The cavatelli, with its dull tomato sauce, concealed land mines of salt that blasted our palates again and again until we gave up and moved on to the veal meatballs – which were dry and dense, but accompanied by roasted cherry tomatoes whose russet robustness far outshone their meaty counterparts. A summer vegetable contorni was pleasant, but we simply didn't have the stamina for more than a few bites after being bombarded with enough food to easily feed a baseball team. Our children obligingly polished off the dessert course: two plates of zeppoli resting in kid-friendly pools of chocolate sauce.
A few weeks later, we ditched the kids for an adults-only dinner, where inconsistent seasoning besieged us yet again. My dining companions complained of too much black pepper in the beef carpaccio ($6), while all I tasted was lemon. Similarly, rather than a lightly balanced marriage of parmesan, egg, and butter, the carbonara ($14) was heavy on the butter, stingy with the pancetta, and incredibly salty.
When dishes weren't incorrectly seasoned, they were either unremarkable or sublime. The suppli ($2) – fat, two-bite fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella – were fine on their own, but paled in comparison to the deeply satisfying farm egg with polenta ($9). The polenta was perfectly creamy, and the sautéed mushrooms added just the right amount of umami to the sweet protein of the soft-cooked egg. Apart from the egg, the short rib ravioli ($16) was the night's big winner – rich and flavorful, with tender beef pocketed in perfectly cooked pasta and nestled in a brown-buttery, thyme-scented sauce. Of the three desserts we tried, we favored the almond cake ($8), a tiny morsel flanked by a delicious almond crumble, subtle against the tart pop of strawberry sorbetto. Then again, hot weather calls for ice cream, and the gelato trio ($6) here is divine, particularly the pistachio and chocolate-orange flavors.
The space is incredibly elegant, with tony upholstered booths, heavy wooden farm tables, gorgeous floral arrangements, and walls of windows allowing for a view of the kitchen and the patio. And yet the front-of-house employees compromise this elegance with a distinct lack of professionalism. The hostesses and manager wore droopy tube tops and inappropriately short skirts while the mostly male waitstaff were clad in baggy jeans and scruffy, plaid shirts. Sadly, the service itself was about as impressive as the dress code. Our waiter at Sunday night's dinner needed multiple reminders about a request for milk for our younger child; on another visit, our strangely aggressive server confiscated our menus, then asked what we would like for our entrées. Lag time between the courses was frustrating, especially when 30 minutes elapsed between our small plates and our entrées, with no offer to replenish cocktails, wine, or iced tea.
Perhaps the service is meant to mirror the execution of the menu, placing the highest highs alongside the lowest lows in an ebullient vaffanculo to the way things are traditionally done in nicer restaurants. Either that or Olive & June has a way to go before it lives up to the potential suggested by that glorious building.
Copyright © 2017 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.