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It took five visits—roughly 13 hours in all—several hundred dollars, and the near-mental breakdown of one waiter for me to finally decide that what Olives really needs is a no-fault return policy. Granted, if such a thing existed, I’d still elect to hang onto a few things from the menu—the bibb lettuce salad, for instance, or the cloudlike vanilla bean souffle that holds a scoop of vanilla ice cream as though it were a steroid-swollen pearl. But I do like the idea. Just think of it: The check arrives. The waiter asks, “Was everything to your liking?” You respond with a harangue that begins, “Actually…” and before you know it, all of that time, effort, and money have been credited to your account. And the bummer meal gets erased from your memory.
Sitting at a stool in front of Olives’ open kitchen, I get the impression that if any restaurant could pull off such a futuristic policy, this is the one. The quick work habits of the kitchen staff belie the glacial crawl that often rules the front of the house. A pristine mound of wild-mushroom risotto emerges from a melee of crashing pans and melted butter and shredded Parmesan. A chef lifts a plate of roasted duckling that he’s just finished trimming and then, without looking, puts his free hand behind him. When he brings the arm back around, he’s holding a plate of salmon au poivre that could be the product of a painter’s brush. The scene is similar to what I imagine happens inside an Amazon.com warehouse during the Christmas rush.
Olives’ proprietor and mascot is Todd English, who retains a kind of phantom residence inside his new K Street venture. Little prodding is needed to get staff to invoke the chef’s name or rhapsodize about his talent, his cookbooks, or his PBS show, and even customers are wont to giggle admiringly about his heroic visage. Yet he’s never around. English’s empire, which was seeded with the flagship Olives in Charlestown, Mass., is growing. The guy is very much a modern chef-entrepreneur—one who conveys a vision and then hires others to animate it.
It’s a fairly becoming vision. The 2-month-old restaurant has the feel of an Ivy League library transposed onto a dance club, with wine bottles sitting in for books, and Fiona Apple and Sade taking over for Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx. The earth tones are so pitch-perfect that the walls fade into the periphery like a Midwestern landscape, and the three levels of dining space incite plenty of table envy. At first glance, the chandeliers look like spiders with feet of lampshades. I haven’t had so much trouble booking a reservation at a local restaurant in years.
But is Olives worth the effort? English has provided his local restaurant with ambitious dish templates that also frequently seem peculiar. Appetizers tend to eat like meals and then some, showcasing a talent whose feel for flavors suggests a jeweler cutting diamonds with a Louisville Slugger.
Truffles are thrown around like sex tales at a bachelor party. They’re there, needlessly layering richness upon richness, in a foie gras flan that also includes wild-mushroom ragout, and then, again, perfuming a poached egg that accompanies couscous carbonara. A squid-and-octopus salad offers a respite from all the huffing and puffing, albeit a flawed one: The meat arrives charred to a cinder, and the dish’s bed of chickpeas is hard. The roasted quail tart has all the delicacy of a day-old bagel, and its drizzle of balsamic vinegar has been reduced until it tastes like burned chocolate. Is it any wonder that the bibb lettuce salad, sprinkled with thin cuts of onion and bits of blue cheese, gets stuck with forks from all corners of our table? Or that frog legs prepared like Buffalo wings strike me as relatively delicate?
Entrees provide a better match for English’s muscular approach—at least a cut of meat can put up some resistance to all the manhandling. The roasted turkey chop actually holds up pretty well: It’s moist and crisp-edged, and the fig compote showcases English’s admirable affection for the underutilized fruit. (At lunch, check the balance on the fig-jam-and-prosciutto pizza.) Sea scallops are (of course) jumbo, wrapped in bacon, and stuck on a rosemary-branch skewer; the menu also says something about a vinaigrette, but the sweetness of the scallops predominates—which, in this context, tastes like a major accomplishment.
The auteur wouldn’t be a proper alpha male if he didn’t at least strive to be as beefy as his beef, and in this regard, his restaurant doesn’t disappoint. Order the wood-grilled sirloin and you’ll find a cow that’s been subjected to violence right up until the moment it lands before you. The meat itself, charred crunchy yet blood-red at the center, couldn’t be more lovely, but it’s basically a garnish. It’s been cut to show off its grain and is adorned with caramelized onions, hunks of bruschetta, peas, Roquefort cream, and a sweet-and-sour something-or-other that tastes faintly of mushrooms. It’s less a meal than a chesty speech about who’s in charge.
To make matters more peculiar, one of the daintiest items on the menu is the clam chowder, which is thin and smoky and wouldn’t qualify as a meal even if you ordered two. When it’s delivered, a few ounces of cream ends up on my arm, and one of the shelled clams rolls to the floor. It’s no big deal, really; a week before, our waiter tipped a glass of pinot noir onto my friend’s shirt and then proceeded to spend 45 minutes trying to bring us our check—which, I should add, turned out to be wrong. The staff is contrite as hell (our S’mores tart gets comped), and the company is good—nothing spurs conversation like noshing with an old friend who’s found himself on the fast track. Given the choice, I doubt I’d exchange the memory for the time and money spent. But I’d gladly accept the option.
Olives, 1600 K St. NW, (202) 452-1866.
One reader’s dissertation on the “irrelevance of meat” concludes with the following question: “If Szechwan beef can be vegetarian—and good—is there any good reason to continue torturing farm animals?” She’s referring to a dish served at
Harmony Cafe, a mostly Chinese pan-Asian joint that offers a meatless version of nearly every dish on its menu. As a freshly anointed regular, I know from several experiences that General Tso’s chicken can even be improved when the bird is left out of it. And although a dish of crispy shiitake mushrooms doesn’t purport to imitate anything in particular, the crisp and chewy little buggers satisfy my calamari jones every time I order them.
Harmony Cafe, 3287 1/2 M St. NW, (202) 338-3881.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.