Photo by Madoline Markham.
Chef Chris Newsome and his wife, Anna, opened Ollie Irene in Mountain Brook Village.
A food blogger, a downtown restaurateur, a food truck/catering entrepreneur, a baker and a Southern Living Food editor all walk into a bar. Sounds like the punch line for a funny joke, right? But in reality it was just a regular Friday night’s dinner service at Ollie Irene, the newest culinary hot spot in Mountain Brook.
Owners Chris Newsome and Anna Lakovitch opened their dream restaurant in the former Browdy’s location just two months ago and are already getting rave reviews. It is not just because we love our local watering holes. It is not just because it is uber-convenient. It is not even just because the food is so darned good. Well, it is all of those things and more. With more than a dozen years working in other people’s restaurants, Chef Newsome knew exactly what he wanted in his own place: incredibly delicious, simple food, served in an atmosphere that is casual yet intimate. After rehabbing the space, the pair worked with local designer Edee Youngblood of Edmundson+Youngblood to craft the space into just what they had always envisioned: rustic cement floors, folly-green wainscoting and hand-framed hunt-club-esque ephemera, creating an ambiance for their guests to always feel at home.
We recently joined some friends at Ollie Irene for a casual Friday night dinner. My friend Kimbellee and I met our husbands and sons there after they played a quick nine holes of golf. We managed to get the last six-top table before the evening rush began in earnest. Our table – hewn of 100-year-old white oak and nestled into an alcove near the front door – felt comfortable and special. It was from this vantage point that I saw all of these familiar foodie friends come through the front door. What I loved about this scene in particular was that there were so many faces from inside and outside our quaint villages. Because in all honesty, while we want a private intimate spot all our own, a restaurant needs a broader appeal to survive. It can’t feel so cloistered as to feel pretentious. It can’t be so precious as to feel unapproachable. It can’t be too expensive to only merit expense-account or special occasion dinner visits. And on all accounts, Ollie Irene delivers.
We started the meal with cocktails and a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boy. Newsome and Lakovitch were thoughtful and deliberate in their beverage choices. The dozen or so wines available are carefully chosen and none is priced at more than $30 a bottle. Bartender Zak Kittle prides himself on his cocktails and makes it easy to find a new favorite. The Spartan Spritz, made with LA Bubbly and fresh grapefruit juice, sounds particularly refreshing, but the Brookdweller Punch – a combination of light and dark rums, fresh citrus, steeped peach and mint – just might win me over.
We ordered several starters, or Pub Plates as appetizers: Build Your Own Crostini, Boudin Balls, Ham Plate, and Chicken Liver Pate. Each item is layered with flavors that come from being well-thought out and prepped with love. The cherry tomatoes had been pickled, the herbed ricotta was whipped, the melon balls tossed in a sherry gastrique. And don’t be frightened by terms not already in your lexicon. Just order it. You will not be disappointed. My seven year old is nothing if not mercurial, at times an adventurous eater, others wanting nothing foreign on the plate. But every time we have dined at Ollie Irene, he has requested the boudin balls and the mussels and the pate. This last dish he describes as tasting like “ham butter.” Truly sublime and we fight over the last bite.
Entrees are rounded out with simple fish, chicken, burgers and pork, although there is nothing ordinary about this fare. For example, the fresh catch of the day is prepared with a warm coriander vinaigrette and tapenade. We have had this dish with both triggerfish and Gulf shrimp. Both were terrific and my 12 year old swabbed her plate with slices of fresh bread. A special menu of seasonal side dishes included assorted pickles, silver queen corn with leeks and smoked bacon, tomato-braised rattlesnake beans and Chilton county field peas with potlikker and sweet pepper relish. We ordered them all and passed them family style.
So, just like that restaurateur, baker and food writer, you’re invited to get comfortable with our new neighborhood restaurant. Just don’t fall in love with too many menu items because as the seasons change, so will the menu. Chef Newsome is modest in describing his efforts: “I only want to honor the ingredients my purveyors bring in.”