Restaurant review: Olive & June

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.07.12
 
There are times I feel like a First World blowhard for picking apart food in search of something corrective. But parked one night in a shady spot at Olive & June, that feeling gave way to the euphoria of abundance. The high notes came from a well-made Negroni cocktail, the robust red warmth of monetpulciano d’Abruzzo and the after-dinner brace of acqua de cedro grappa liqueur, but there was more to it. Like the joy of a kitchen crew so motivated by their food that they want you to taste everything, even if it’s just a bite or two.
 
Like a piece of grilled swordfish on a stick dressed with olive oil and herb (spiedini, $2.25). Or zucchini rolled with pine nuts and raisins in tomato broth (involtini, $5). And a single butterflied sardine breaded and fried over radicchio ($4).
 
These “piccoli piatti” are points of entry into Shawn Cirkiel’s new Italian venture, the child you might expect if his Parkside raw bar/bistro and Backspace pizzeria/antipasti palace got together. Shortly after it opened in February, Olive & June drew a telling response from fellow chef Tyson Cole of Uchi, who said on Twitter that “piccoli is the new sushi.” Sushini, sushetta, Uh-Oh Sushettios. Get the Marketing Department in here.
 
Eight dishes came and went that one night, drawn from a menu split into piccoli piatti ($1.75-$6), larger antipasti plates ($9-$19), pasta dishes ($14-$19), entrees ($21-$49) and side dishes called contorni ($6.50). All told, I tried 26 dishes in three visits. That’s not bragging about my expense account. Each trip fell within the bounds of what you’d expect to pay for dinner at a nice place.
 
Not all of it was euphoric. Not the suppli ($2), a fried ball of risotto and cheese like an after-school Italian microwave snack. Not a crudo of raw fluke ($5) — so elegant at Parkside with lemon and almond — handled here with smothering hot chile oil. Not a sparse escarole salad ($8) finished with a fried egg gone black-rimmed and rigid. On the waiter’s suggestion, I added pork meatballs to spaghetti pomodoro, moving it from a $14 bite of pasta and red sauce to an almost $20 entree with expectations beyond its humble gifts.
 
Short-rib ravioli ($16), a dish of full-figured beef and a peacock display of sweet peppers, green beans and olives was scorched by salt like the acid-blood in an Aliens movie. Salt’s heavy hand also played spoiler in a side dish of okra with sweet peppers, in linguine with clams and speck, in a toss of braised artichoke and carrots and in a roasted pork loin. For each of those dishes, salt was the only sin. But a cardinal one, hard to wash away.
 
Like I did when I reviewed the Backspace last year, I’ll say upfront that I don’t have memories of Italy to fuel my observations. But we’re in northern Austin and not southern Italy, so I’ll have to trust Olive & June’s translations. If they’re teaching me to say the culinary equivalent of  “Yes, bring me pointy shoes and temperamental sport coupes,” then the joke’s on me. So I’ll have to go with what showed up, and most of it was creative, interesting and well-executed.
 
The honor roll of small plates continued with a grilled prawn ($3) finished in peppers, garlic and orange acidity and a simple rolled crepe called testaroli ($2) with electric basil pesto and pine nuts. I’d have saved the panelle ($1.75) for dessert had I known how closely the fried chickpea sticks would emulate sopapillas in their honeyed simplicity. Let’s promote the fry-cook (or better yet, leave that person in place) for a bowl of precision-fried squid, swordfish and shrimp with arugula ($9). Where the smaller plates opened the door a crack, the grilled Angus ($22) kicked it down with a row of thick sirloin slices seared a textbook medium-rare and dressed in the puttanesca finery of olives, tomatoes, peppers and capers.
 
 
In the aftermath of so many anti-, posti-, penne- and extra-pasti plates, dessert at Olive and June is a glutton’s errand. At family dinner, the kids laid siege to a turret of dense chocolate cake in a moat of chocolate zabaglione. A peaches and cream dessert ($8) with pistachio crumble and frozen ginger meringue fought below its weight-class and left me in fat-cheeked fascination over a dish of fried bombolini on its way to an aerial assault of the next table over. A smarter finish to the dinner-time chorus line was a trio of golfball-sized ice creams ($6). I could’ve predicted the Dreamsicle and fruit-pop personalities of the vanilla-orange gelato and strawberry sorbetto, but the pistachio gelato was a full-on rush of crunch and cream like eating Ritz-cracker Ben & Jerry’s under the influence.
 
♦♦
With food so energetic and uncommon, forgive me for bringing up my ongoing sore points with Cirkiel’s other restaurants: The menus read like poorly metered haiku. Or Jeopardy riddles. Or old newspaper classifieds where they charged by the line. Take your pick.
 
Olive & June recommits those sins by listing the one- or two-word dish titles followed by three or four free-association nouns. Adjectives are extra; forget verbs. If you already knew what spiedini, testaroli and involtini were, I salute you. But I’d rather not have to Google everything tableside. And before I commit to a $49 Bistecca alla Fiorentina, I’ll need more than “salsa verde” as a sales pitch. I could ask the waiter for a dish-by-dish-quisition, but that function would be better served by letting the menu express its 40-plus dishes in more than one page. Paper’s cheaper than face time, and faster.
 
It’s maybe the same reticence that rationalizes the absence of something so gauche as a sign that says “Olive & June,” a guidepost to let you know which entrance of this stack-itecture treehouse you should use. It’s the one in back, across the first-floor patio, a deck shaded by an oak so Avatar-ially majestic the previous tenant built the whole place around it and took its name, El Arbol. You might like the second-floor patio even better, but that one’s just for drinks and small plates. The third-floor crow’s nest is off-limits, the vertiginous realm of private parties. Inside, the first floor’s a wide white room of sturdy wooden tables and slide-around upholstered booths with a view of the galley. The second-floor interior holds a bar and a button-plush den for wiseguys, cheaters and natural-light refugees.
 
Word to the wise: Always make a reservation. To better appreciate the counterintuitive ballet of the system, I’d offer an argument that unfolded behind me. A couple with reservations asked the hostess why they couldn't be moved out of the direct sunlight on an otherwise empty deck. "We're fully booked," she said, gesturing to the void. I had a reservation, too, but they still made a show of doing me a favor by letting me pick a table outside instead of a dark corner on the second floor. "All of those are reserved, but you can be finished by 8:15, can't you?" Ha-hah! Last time I treated my family like that — whatever my intentions — they packed up the car and left. There’s a fine line between managing your space and making your customers feel like they’re getting in the way of that.
 
Parking is in short supply at Olive & June. Free valet’s the only option unless you encroach on the nearby streets. Some of us — either because we’re cheap or we don’t like other people driving our cars — don’t care for valet parking, even when it’s free. Or close to it; etiquette suggests a $2 tip when they bring your car back, $5 if you can spare it. I expect this kind of parking imbroglio downtown, but out here I wonder how a second-generation restaurant space with so little dedicated parking ever saw the business end of a permit.
 
Whatever misgivings I have about Olive & June fade with the thought of Sunday family dinner. The seventh day is reserved for a set menu of five or so courses at $35 a head, with kids under 12 free. I have one of those, and she was queen for a day with her glass of aranciata soda and a parade of dishes that started with cake-soft ciabatta and a bowl of warm blackberry compote and ended with a bag of leftovers like we’d been Christmas shopping at Macy’s. Everybody at the table scooped from the same dishes and no, we didn’t share cafeteria bowls with the other tables. We had Roma tomatoes stuffed with couscous, a towering salad of dressed field greens, grilled squash with mozzarella, okra with sweet peppers, linguine with clam, pork loin with fat chunks of brandied peach and roasted potatoes and that castle-siege of a chocolate dessert. There were small issues — the salt I mentioned before and overly fishy clams — but the joy and bounty were undeniable.
 
The Sunday dinner is a family thing, Cirkiel said, an event to which he brings his own family and something for which he might have more time as chef de cuisine Justin Rupp takes over the day-to-day cooking. The menu, which is posted to the restaurant’s website on Thursdays, is more organic and dynamic than mathematical, Cirkiel said. One week might feature a lighter table with more expensive elements, while another week concentrates on abundance. My daughters and I laughed as the last of eight plates hit the table, knowing we'd passed "full" awhile back, setting aside the pretense of critical resolve for a moment of joy.
 
Olive & June
341 Glenview Ave. 512-467-9898, www.oliveandjune-austin.com.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Happy hour 5 to 7 p.m. daily with half-price beer, cocktails and liquor (wine is regular price). UPDATE 06.29.12: Happy hour specials have been extended to include the antipasti menu at half-price.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
 
(TOP PHOTO, CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Short-rib ravioli; grilled Angus alla puttanesca; trio of ice creams; the oak tree that shades all three decks; braised artichokes and carrots; seafood fritto misto. INSET PHOTO: First-floor dining room. ROW OF FOUR DISHES: From left are testaroli, swordfish spiedini, suppli and zucchini involtini. BOTTOM PHOTO: Sunday family-dinner dishes, including roasted pork, linguine with clams, ciabatta with blackberry compote, squash with mozzarella and okra with sweet peppers. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)