Olivia, the new western Mediterranean restaurant from owner Ashok Bajaj, opens for dinner tonight where NoPa Kitchen + Bar used to be in Penn Quarter. For the past nine days, the acclaimed restaurateur behind Rasika has been leading a rapid renovation to eradicate most every piece of evidence that his American brasserie used to reside at 800 F Street NW.
The notable exception to the revamp is the staff, all of whom remain in place to oversee a new direction that — despite the abrupt switch announced in December — has been forming in Bajaj’s brain for close to a year. Once the owner got NoPa executive chef Matt Kuhn on board, Bajaj dispatched him to Spain for a trip that began in Barcelona and continued south through Valencia and the Costa del Sol.
The lessons Kuhn took from that exploration mixed with Bajaj’s input from extensive travels in Morocco to produce a menu at Olivia that borrows from those cultures — along with those of Italy, Portugal, Greece, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The result, Bajaj stresses, is an interpretation of Mediterranean cooking. Authenticity wasn’t the goal.
When Kuhn created Olivia’s steamed Manila clams with Iberico jam, he swapped out the fish jowls that lent a gelatinous consistency to the broth he tasted in Catalonia with salt cod popular in Portugal. He then incorporated minty potatoes to help thicken the liquid.
When Kuhn put dolmades on the menu — a tribute to the rice-stuffed grape leaves he used to roll as a teenage dishwasher at a Greek restaurant near Charleston, South Carolina — he added spiced beef and pine nuts to the mix and created an Avgolemono sauce free of corn starch with the help of a foaming canister.
Kuhn will incorporate chickpea flour into Italian style pastas, too. Burrata comes with garlic breadcrumbs and a green shock of spicy zhug. Carrot hummus is spiced with the Moroccan blend Ras El Hanout.
One of the more inventive small plates is a Galician-style octopus carpaccio in which the seafood is ramped in a bundle of jamon. A sous vide bath breaks down proteins in the octopus and creates a natural binder, so the whole thing holds together when its sliced from a cylinder into thin rounds. Large plates include a braised short rib that comes in an ornate, aqua blue tagine.
Olivia Dinner Menu by on Scribd
Wine and beverage director Tim Hays concocted six new cocktails to complement Kuhn’s menu. A drink called the Sancho mixes vodka with fresh carrot puree and house-made ginger beer with a carrot stick garnish. The Adonis stirs rum with honey, plum bitters, and rich labneh yogurt to create something akin to a breezy version of eggnog.
For the physical transformation of the space, Bajaj enlisted Martin Vahtra from Projects Design Associates of New York. Reds have been replaced with blues. Roughly 75 pieces of art — including replicas from Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali — populate the walls. There are plants everywhere. White sails and fish nets holding giant glass wine containers hang from the walls. Hermes fabric pops from banquette booths.
With the design and planning in place, Bajaj insists the nine-day turnaround wasn’t a hardship.
“It’s like a movie set,” he says. “You have all the pieces ready, right, and you just bring the pieces, and you assemble them.”
Olivia opens for dinner on Thursday, January 10, and will begin serving lunch Wednesday, January 16. Hours are Monday through Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.