The stunning Olamaie looks like it has been plucked from the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club and placed on San Antonio Street in the Judge’s Hill neighborhood.
The 83-year-old white building with the dark trim resembles the Eisenhower Cabin at the lofty home of the Masters golf tournament. It’s fitting that the restaurant’s exterior would echo the aesthetics of one of the South’s most quintessential locales. The restaurant from co-executive chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas focuses on traditional Southern food created with modern technique and local produce.
The two chefs, who worked previously at Southern-accented, seafood-driven Son of a Gun in Los Angeles, disrupt the tired notion of Southern fare as stick-to-your-ribs fried food, layering flavors with quality, seasonal ingredients. The results are as mixed as the dialects heard from Meridian to Charlotte.
The offerings waltz through the heart of the South, from the Carolinas (gold rice) to Central Texas (Dewberry Hills Farm chicken). The restaurant is named after four generations of matriarchs in Fojtasek’s family, and the menu features the three encircled stars of the Tennessee flag, the birthplace of all four Olamaies.
The restaurant’s interior, colored in shades of grey and taupe with dark wood, is stark and elegant. The immaculate and muted space sets a stage for the bold dishes from the open kitchen. It also can lend itself to a noisy dining experience, with some tables set within elbow-swinging distance of one another.
Olamaie pays homage to regional classics, often introducing unexpected modern twists in preparation, and the results have ranged from revelatory to confounding.
An appetizer of smoked wahoo ($15) made for an excellent creamy spread flavored with a zippy mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce found in northern Alabama. But I was unsatisfied with a skinny and bronzed cut of overcooked Day Boat grouper ($30), though the plating was beautiful, with broccoli green-wrapped sweet potatoes, dots of pecan butter, and a dollop of incredibly rich sweet potato puree.
A fluffy and creamy mound of Carolina Gold Rice enriched with butternut squash pudding served as the base for a showering of chilled Gulf blue crab, the clean sweetness of the lump meat shining atop its savory bed ($18).
The kitchen’s seasonal edict led to the redundancy of several ingredients. The sweet potatoes from the fish made an appearance on a shareable plate, this time with skins glazed to a leathery toughness in a powerful pool of smoky and sour clabber cheese that lit a path through the overpowering sweetness of whey caramel ($13).
Olamaie doesn’t forsake Southern-fried heritage completely. A crunchy fried armor of blue cornmeal encased flaky North Carolina catfish nestled beneath a blanket of Comeback Sauce, a Mississippi take on remoulade that required more sting and less salt ($16). I appreciate Olamaie’s attempts to deliver some unleaded takes on Southern dishes, but I would have loved a fried chicken offering (a dish famous at Son of a Gun) as opposed to sous-vide cooked chicken breast wrapped around ground thigh meat served with pools of Madeira cream and a thick heaping of what was ostensibly broccoli-flavored butter. The modernist preparation made for a mushy consistency.
The sous-vide technique was also applied to a curious pork chop dish ($30). The heritage pork, which had been cooked to a puffy medium-rare and sliced into tough boneless strips, had the color and consistency of exhausted bubble gum and had to be returned.
That stumble, which the chefs humbly acknowledged, was countered by a basket of the kitchen’s soon-to-be-famous “secret biscuits.” You won’t find them on the menu, but make sure to ask for an order (three for $9) of the pieces of pastry perfection, golden like the early morning sun on the outside and fluffy and airy like cumulus clouds on the inside. The best biscuits I’ve tasted, they came with viscous honey butter we didn’t even bother spreading … we just dipped the biscuits directly into the butter, its consistency wavering between solid and liquid.
For all of the reported tinkering to perfect the heavenly biscuits, it’s disappointing to find something simple like a bavette steak, cooked to a perfect rosy blush, almost ruined by too much salt ($32). The steak slip-up was softened slightly by the dark fruit of a glass of Roth Cabernet Sauvignon. Olamaie’s California-centric all-American wine list is relatively staid and approachable, though limited, offering only four reds and four whites by the glass, with highlights like a Sauvignon Blanc from Lieu Dit in Santa Inez Valley.
Olamaie’s dichotomous highs and lows extended through dessert. One dinner featured a sumptuous scoop of the creamiest vanilla ice cream I’ve had at a restaurant ($5), while another ended with overwhelming cornbread ice cream that tasted like almost-frozen cornbread batter ($5).
The inconsistencies represent the inherent weakness of a restaurant that is making an admirable attempt to bring something unique to the Austin market. The chefs have intention, point of view, creativity and passion, but Olamaie needs to tighten its execution and focus in order to establish a level of high expectations in its customers.
1610 San Antonio St. 512-474-2796, olamaieaustin.com
Rating: 7 out of 10
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$18; entrees, $25-$32; dessert, $5-9.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambiance and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Olamaie brings inventive and thoughtful play on Southern classics to Austin but is struggling to perfect its execution.
Notes: Reservations strongly recommended. Lounge opens 30 minutes before dinner. Free on-street parking is available after 6 p.m. in the immediate neighborhood. Free parking lot directly behind Olamaie neighbors at 1606 San Antonio St. is available after 6 p.m. Enter from the alley on 16th or 17th streets between San Antonio and Nueces streets. Wheelchair accessible entrance is on the San Antonio Street side of the building.