The words local, seasonal, regional and sustainable have been bandied about so often in recent years that diners have become inured as to what they actually mean. Generations of Southern chefs were raised with the emblematic words and have always cooked with the best food available. There was a time before seafood emulsions and cumin-scented foams, deconstructed roast guinea hens and precious miniature vegetables. Legions of cooks remember a time when restaurant kitchens aimed to produce great food, not 15-minute culinary celebrities.
Restaurant Ollie Irene, opening in Mountain Brook Village this week, aims to return to Southern culinary roots and do what great restaurants should: feed people delicious food in a gracious and hospitable environment. If this is done consistently, patrons become regulars and then, if they’re lucky, good friends. Owners Chris Newsome and his fiancée Anna Lakovitch have been working on opening this restaurant for nearly half a dozen years, but only in their thoughts, daydreams, travels and scouting trips. Newsome grew up in Mountain Brook and worked under notable local chefs Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. He completed culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., while continuing to hone his skills in the kitchens of Slightly North of Broad (SNOB) and East Bay Street. Knowing that on-the-job training is both priceless and invaluable, Newsome also worked in highend restaurants in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Most recently, he worked with his good friend, Robby Melvin, who runs SALT Fine Catering in Birmingham. He is drawn to food that is both technically-driven and approachable.
For this restaurant, named for his paternal grandmother, think New Orleans-influenced boudin balls or a lemon tart with honeymascarpone cheese.
Lakovitch grew up on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and has the easy-going demeanor that such a childhood might foster. “She’s the list-maker,” Newsome says with a note of pride. Because, while they may have been thinking about the restaurant Ollie Irene for years, it has been less than two months since they signed the lease and set about renovating the space vacated by Browdy’s and more recently, Pianeta 3.
Behind butcher-block paper-lined windows, we recently sat down to talk about their new endeavor. They had just finished a casual brunch of grits, fresh-sliced tomatoes and fried eggs. Washed down with a simple mimosa, it summed up the kind of food they plan to serve. Wanting to open gently, Newsome and Lakovitch are planning on only offering dinner at first. Regarding the community’s expectations, Newsome remarks, “We’re going to open ‘soft’ on purpose. I’m really nervous that this place is going to be extremely busy right off the bat. I have more than 20 years experience in restaurants—many under James Beard-award-winning chefs. Most of the restaurants I’ve ever opened are a challenge.
My theory and my idea are to open slowly. I hope there will be a nice way for me to say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re full, can you please come back tomorrow?’” While the pair has moved rapidly to renovate this space, every detail has been thoughtfully considered. Lakovitch has even taken on the additional work of documenting their progress on a blog: ollieirene.blogspot.com. It is a treat to see how they have been able to manifest their vision at every turn. From selecting the perfect shade of green for the wainscoting— “It’s called ‘folly green’,” Lakovitch says, “It is meant to evoke nostalgia without being old” —to using reclaimed white oak planks for the bar top and framing dried pine boughs and cotton stems, they have considered every detail. The resulting feel is something they like to think of as “hunt club meets country club,” but you get the feeling that it is more than that. Yes, it has a certain Garden and Gun-type of atmosphere but you can easily imagine all types gathering here. Lakovitch sums it up this way: “We want to be the neighborhood go-to, come-as-you-are, walk in from driving home from the beach, get a great, simple meal with a lot of integrity and a price you consider is a good value.”
They are still fine tuning the menu but plan to offer not only standard-sized dinner meals but a rotating selection of smaller plates at the bar. Pair that with a flight of wine and you can see yourself making a habit of this. Newsome notes, “We’ve been very ambitious in this project, but I’ll probably start off with not as many dishes as I want. The prices of those [ingredients] are a real consideration. Using the best I can really determines what our prices will be. I really just want to create real food. Roast some beets, cut them up, marinate them, serve them on a plate with some olive oil and sea salt and herbs. It’s real. It tastes good.” Choices are likely to include a fish, a chicken and a beef selection. Seasonal, simply prepared vegetables—like those beets—are natural accompaniments.
Neighbors are anxious for them to open their doors and get a taste of what has been going on behind that butcher-block paper. Newsome says, “It would be nice to start off slowly, get our feet wet, let us figure out what we need to work on, execute properly. Because in Mountain Brook, it’s not just a food critic that can make or break a place. This shopping center has a lot of traffic and people are really talking about us already.” Lakovitch laughs and adds, “We’ve had forehead prints, nose prints, chin prints, hand prints, finger prints all over the windows.” It sounds like they are getting ready to make a whole lot of new friends.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings online at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).