The Austin Chronicle

Bless Their Heart

Olamaie's Southern is everything but down-home

Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, December 5, 2014, Food

The third in a troika of Southern-centric restaurants to open this fall, Olamaie was perhaps the most highly anticipated thanks to a series of splashy pop-ups and a long-delayed opening. Tucked into a refurbished cottage that once housed the beloved Mars and Sagra restaurants, Olamaie, the brainchild of chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas, specializes in modern Southern food inspired by a namesake grandmother and local ingredients.

You'd expect a restaurant inspired by Southern grandmas to be cozy and homey, but Olamaie doesn't look or feel like any granny's house I've ever been to. This is Atlantic-coast Southern, evoking images of artisanal boiled peanuts and hoarded Civil War silver. The decor is austere yet serene in cool grays, ripped from the pages of Garden & Gun magazine (or the Restoration Hardware catalog). If anything, the decor does its job in setting the reserved tone for "modern Southern cuisine."

Likewise, you're not going to get heaping plates of fried meat and stewed greens here. Instead, you'll get artfully plated, modest portions of high-end ingredients. Because Fojtasek and Nonas choose to let seasonality drive the menu, it's possible to never have the same thing twice. From an assortment of small shared starter plates, the star player is the chilled Gulf blue crab with Carolina Gold rice served with a daub of butternut squash pudding and turnip accents ($18). The nuttiness of the heirloom grain danced elegantly with the mellow oceanic notes of the crab; the chefs would do well to keep this one in rotation.

Of the vegetable choices, Carol Ann's greens and shaved beets salad ($14) with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and Pure Luck chèvre was a hit while the Olamaie pickles ($6), consisting of sliced and whole okra and chunks of red onion, were just fine. We were stymied, however, by the whipped pork fat smeared on the side of the plate. Were we meant to drag our pickles through it? Is that a thing? Why would we want to do that to our pickles? "It's like eating ChapStick," said my friend.

Bridging the gap between starters and entrées are the much-lauded "secret" ­biscuits, which went up in price in between our visits, from $9 to $10 for a basket of three. Served with a ramekin of lightly salted honey butter, they are quite tasty if not transcendent. Indeed, there are very few biscuits on this planet that warrant a price tag north of $3 each, and the fetishization of this humble staple of po' folks' cooking feels kind of gross.

But enough of the soapbox. Let's talk about the real problems at Olamaie: the entrées. This half of the menu demonstrates the very definition of "hit and miss." The rotating, seasonal menu is a mixed blessing, because if it were a static offering, I wouldn't ever order anything but the Smoky Hen of the Woods ($23). It's the best vegetarian dish I've had in Austin, period. It's an unusual stew of field peas and mushrooms that is both hearty and flavorful. Simply put, the dish is a revelation and I look forward to its return to the menu.

Of course, the problem with setting the bar so high is that the less successful dishes are that much more disappointing. For example, the Dewberry Hills Farms chicken roulade ($28) was bland and tasteless, and did no justice to such a carefully chosen ingredient. The roasted king trumpet mushroom ($25) was a parsimonious helping of mushroom slices atop broccoli greens and a mound of large pastry crumbs meant to evoke spaetzle dumplings. While the potlikker dressing the tiny dish was pleasantly tart, I was bored. The only other winning dish we sampled at Olamaie was the Wagyu bavette steak ($32). The kitchen did a lovely job with a typically tough cut; it had a nice sear with a mid-rare center and very good flavor. A rotating, seasonal focus requires an agility with ingredients that isn't quite there yet in the Olamaie kitchen; I'd rather see them doing the same five things really well than doing 80 things inconsistently, especially at this price point.

The same holds true for the limited dessert offerings. While we enjoyed the apple pie ($8), a beauty queen of a pastry that tasted as good as it looked, the Arnold Palmer cake ($9), made with Zhi tea and Meyer lemon, was less successful. It wanted more lemon curd, and the cake itself was dry and dense. It tasted and felt like a cruel health-food interpretation of something much more pleasurable. But the cocktails were inventive; my favorite was the Antebellum ($11), a sassy twist on the Cosmopolitan.

Service at Olamaie might be the unkindest cut. While the host staff are warm and friendly, the hospitality ends there. On multiple visits we received competent if indifferent service; one server rushed us out the door in less than an hour while another drew out our meal to nearly two hours. Neither one of them made us feel particularly welcome. What would Grandma say?

Ultimately, I'm ambivalent about Olamaie. We ate some truly delicious food in an elegant environment, but I came away feeling like something was missing. In its emphasis on modern Southern cuisine, Olamaie falls short on Southern comfort.

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