Fed Man 55: Olivia (13)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 13: Olivia
2043 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-804-2700, www.olivia-austin.com.
Hours: 5:30-10pm Sun-Thu. 5:30-11pm Fri-Sat. Brunch 10am-2:30pm Sat-Sun. Bar opens 5pm daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.02.12
After a solid review in early 2009 followed by a break-even experience later that year and a depressing brunch a year after that, I’d more or less given up on Olivia. I dropped it from the batting order, because a .500 average is great for a hitter but bad for a restaurant where a dinner for two with wine runs north of $150.
Working with Cecilia Nasti for her radio show “Field and Feast,” I went back to Olivia this summer to talk about its garden and the Lone Star truck they’d converted into a chicken coop. I watched chef Andrew Francisco follow the dozens of harvesting, cutting, tearing, frying, marinating, grilling, sauteeing, saucing and composing steps it took to plate a dish of filet mignon with summer tomato salad and house-cured coppa. It was a $42 dish, which I paid for because it was torture to photograph it without having a bite. The flavors, textures and technique made me think Olivia deserved another look.
Then just like that, Francisco was gone, pulled into a new project called Mettle from Rainey Street impresario Bridget Dunlap. In the quiet void that followed, I pulled Olivia out of the running for the Fed Man 55, on the logic that losing your lead guy in the kitchen is like starting over. I didn’t put much currency in a fast turnaround, because Olivia owner and founding chef James Holmes’ energy seemed to be soaked up in his new South Austin fried-chicken place called Lucy’s, which hit the Fed Man 55 at No. 37.
But things happen. Six weeks into the Fed Man 55 countdown, another one of my preseason favorites changed hands. At the same time, Holmes had stirred things up by announcing he’d be back on the line at Olivia. Countdowns can’t abide a vacuum, so Olivia got a halftime audition. Six courses and a whirlwind wine tour later — in concert with the greatest hits of visits past — put Olivia back in the hunt at No. 13.
My six-course reintroduction to Olivia was a solid value at $65, available Sunday through Thursday. With wine pairings from Olivia’s elegantly edited list, it still clocked in at less than $100 for one of the city’s most thorough full-body American bistro experiences.
It wasn’t just the dishes themselves but the progression of flavors and textures, starting with the earth and sea of a beet salad and frosty oyster sharing a plate, set up by a glass of sharp, pink Jeio rosé, moving in turn to a bowl of silky corn soup like a country club chowder infiltrated by cumin. Jean Paul Brun chardonnay was a well-suited match: Cool petrol, smoky oil. A swirl of Paul Mas picpoul de pinet was the cold white shock a scallop crudo needed to invigorate raw chopped scallops that tasted weary under their cargo of fennel, apple and chile.
Veal sweetbreads were thrown off by a base of burnt rye toast, but not enough to destabilize the power-pack of lush honey demi glace, buttery offal and warm duck egg. A balanced Italian barbera-pinot blend from Marchesi Incisa partnered with this one, a pairing as correct as the big-mouthed Texier Côtes du Rhône for the Wagyu tri-tip that followed, backed up by an underground trio of salsify, carrot and potato. A dish with rustic edges softened by a glycolic reduction of wine, butter, mustard and demi. The dinner that started with a handshake ended with a hug goodbye of cheesecake fortified by blue cheese and a little dessert wine.
But it wasn’t Holmes at the stove the night of the comeback. It was new lead chef Max Petty, with a name that suggests a superhero for the little guy or a NASCAR dynasty. It was like New York’s Hottest Club with SNL’s Stefon: There was a guy passed out on the patio, ambulance-light disco balls in the dining room, juiced-up bros in shorts and flip-flops, a child.
Olivia is no place for candlelight and whispers, not with all that Michael Hsu glass and wood and sharp angles. It’s a place to challenge or validate your palate, your sense of adventure, your nerves and your price-point tolerance. If I thought $42 for that filet was a little high, now I see quail for $34, redfish for a dollar shy of $40 and a veal chop for $55 and I’m thinking price isn’t the only thing that’s a little high at Olivia. The trick now is to keep the new buzz going.
(TOP: Olivia's sweeping angles are a signature of Michael Hsu's restaurant design style. FIRST INSET: Clockwise from top left: The dining room's windowscape is a sunroom during the day and a box-seat for the carnival of South Lamar at night; Wagyu tri-tip with root vegetables and a glass of Texier Côtes du Rhône; blue cheese cheesecake; veal sweetbreads. SECOND INSET: Beet salad and oyster on the half-shell; scallop crudo; sweet corn soup and Jean Paul Brun chardonnay. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants