DCist - First Look: Olivia’s Modern Mediterranean Menu Includes Charcuterie And Osso Bucco

Calling a restaurant Mediterranean hardly narrows down what diners can expect to see on a menu. The sea itself borders 21 countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Orders of hummus and pita are as much a staple of the region as are lemon-laced bowls of fried seafood.

That variety, while dizzying at times, gave restaurateur Ashok Bajaj (Rasika, Bindaas, etc.) and executive chef Matt Kuhn plenty of directions to go in when developing Olivia, a breezy new concept in Penn Quarter. The restaurant takes the place of the modern American NoPa Kitchen + Bar, also from Kuhn and Bajaj, which had a five-year run at the same location and shuttered in December. It’s not the first time Bajaj has undergone an ambitious restaurant swap: Last winter he closed Cleveland Park’s Ardeo + Bardeo and opened Israeli eatery Sababa at the address just weeks later.

NoPa to Olivia was a natural transition for Kuhn, whose resume includes stints at Ardeo + Bardeo and DC Coast (both are now closed). As a kid, he worked the line and washed dishes at a Greek restaurant.

“I’ve always had Mediterranean-inspired dishes on menus,” Kuhn says. “This is all full circle.”

Olivia’s name comes the Latin word for olive tree and is inspired by olive oil, an ingredient Bajaj sees as a unifying thread across Mediterranean cooking. It may be the newest spot for Mediterranean dining in D.C., but it’s certainly not alone in a city awash with similar destinations: Cava Mezze, Lebanese Taverna, and Zaytinya among them. To set his spot apart from the competition, Kuhn set out to give familiar dishes of the region a makeover.

“It’s kind of a play on a lot of old classics but done with modern recipes and modern ingredients, but still keeping tradition to some of the old school stuff,” says Kuhn, who traveled to Spain for research.

Some of the tweaks are subtle, such as incorporating beef into traditionally vegetarian grape leaf dolmades and turning its accompanying avgolemono sauce from a typically slurry consistency to something light and frothy. Others are more dramatic, like substituting cuts of bone-in lamb neck instead of veal in the osso bucco. Olivia gets creative with vegetables, too. Take the kabocha squash pesto that stars on a flatbread along with piquillo peppers, savoy spinach, cippolinis, and a chermoula yogurt manchego cheese.

The menu offers many ways to make a meal, whether it’s through Italian, French, or Moroccan flavors. It begins with spreads, cheese, and charcuteries and graduates to flatbreads and other small plates. For anyone who anyone who prefers to eschew the sharing trend, there are also plenty of larger entrées. Prices range from $5 for a tzatziki labne to $29 for a large dish of lamb.

At the bar, wines and beers are sourced from both the U.S. and Europe. Cocktails ($11-$13) draw on ingredients like basil, honey, and fig purée. The opening menu also includes two $8 mocktails—one with peach, cranberry, citrus, and lavender and another with apple, orange, quince, and lemon-thyme.

Olivia’s interior is as lively as its food, following a transition that came to life in just about nine days following NoPa’s closure (the menu and concept though took about a year to perfect, including design plans). The floorplan and kitchen are the same but unrecognizable from their past lives. Walls are painted with coastal hues of whites and blues and adorned with mismatched art. Seating includes blue and orange upholstery and vibrant yellow bar stools.

Olivia opened this week with dinner, lunch, and Sunday brunch. Kuhn expects to adapt and change its dishes with the season, keeping things fresh for guests whether they stop in for a cocktail and some charcuterie or a full-blown feast.

“That is what was exciting about this job. The doors are open—wide open,” says Bajaj.

Michael Yarger