A complete rebranding is always a tricky undertaking. Regulars are bound to be disappointed, while newcomers may have been banking on an expected experience. But rebranding can be a good thing, offering a new experience or vision and the opportunity to carve a new path.
Ashok Bajaj, one of D.C.’s premier restauranteurs, pulled it off without missing a beat.
Formerly Nopa Kitchen + Bar, the restaurant in Penn Quarter is now known as Olivia. What was once a Modern American brasserie has now shifted to a Mediterranean-themed oasis, replete with light, airy touches and an abundance of natural greenery.
The menu has undergone a similar renovation, now focusing heavily on lighter, cleaner flavors, and a subtlety that reflects the way Bajaj himself now eats. (Nearly half the menu is vegetarian.) Executive chef Matt Kuhn, a holdover from his time running the kitchen at Nopa, leans heavily on a European influence, including the cuisines of Spain, Morocco, and Greece.
Take, for instance, the Chef’s tasting of Mediterranean spreads: near-perfect renditions of a classic tzatziki labne, an eggplant matbucha (cooked down with tomatoes, garlic, and roasted bell pepper), and a smooth carrot hummus, all served with crackling, spice-dusted lavash. All delicious, of course, but also an apt metaphor for the Chef’s outlook on the entire menu.
Similar flavors pervade the opening dishes, as well. The mujadara is the platonic ideal of Rice-a-Roni (in no way is that a bad thing, at all), combining grains like cumin-spiced lentils and wild rice with charred cippolini onions, roasted chickpeas, and tangy Greek yogurt.
Galician-style octopus nods to the Mediterranean coast, and is easily one of the most gorgeous (and sneakily spicy) dishes I’ve encountered in some time. The octopus is thinly shaved, and presented almost carpaccio-style, with pickled potatoes, a peri-peri aioli, and cubes of crunchy chicharron. The result is a perfect meld of textures and flavors, and one that prompted BYT’s excellent photographer to say, and I quote: “I want a plate of this that’s table-sized that I can around on with my mouth open.” High praise.
Mains are substantial without being heavy; standouts included an umami-laden chickpea ravioli with a mushroom Bolognese and pecorino cream, and the already-lauded chicken bastille, an upgraded chicken pot pie with an impossibly light phyllo crust, green harissa, and pistachio.
I enjoyed Olivia so much that I even tried a dessert: the hazelnut profiterole (shoutout to the Oregon hazelnut producers!), rich yet light, with a chocolate dust and milk jam. (Even if milk’s not your jam, you’ll dig this.)
Revamps are often unsuccessful; yet when they’re spearheaded by an excellent owner and an Executive Chef with a clear vision, it just works. Olivia is most assuredly in the latter camp.