When Ollie Irene closed a year ago, we, along with a lot of other people in Birmingham, were bummed out. The Mountain Brook gastropub had become a local favorite, as well as receiving critical acclaim (including a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best New Restaurant in 2011.) The closure, a result of the Lane Parke Development, was just part of the restaurant’s story. Owners Chris and Anna Newsome have said for some time that they would be opening a new Ollie Irene.
Exactly a year to the date of the closing — September 30 — we had the pleasure of eating at the new before the public opening on Tuesday, October 3. The sneak peek dinners (see: butcher paper in the window) have allowed them to test their new setup. Though, like all What To Eat meals, we went in anonymity and paid for our meals.
We’re happy to report: Ollie Irene is back, better than ever.
Just like before, guests will recognize Anna at the front of the house and Chris’ work in the kitchen. But there are also some differences.
First, a bit about the new space. Located at 75 Church Street, it’s the site of the former Tracy’s Restaurant in Crestline Village. The space is physically smaller than the first Ollie Irene, but actually has seating for about the same number of people. This includes seating at tables, the bar and a few outside tables.
Seating will be first come first serve — no reservations. Opened Tuesday-Saturday, service will begin at 4 p.m., with small plates and drinks available until full service begins at 5:30.
Instead of an overarching “concept,” the menu relies on seasonal ingredients and Chris’ technique. The Mountain Brook native got his start cooking for Frank Stitt, and later went on to work for Chris Hastings, and in DC for chef Bob Kinkead, and in Charleston for Frank Lee, as well as studying at Johnson & Wales University.
Newsome’s training, and global influences, including French, Italian, and Spanish, is evident across the menu, which is divided into three main sections (plus drinks and desserts). “Odds and Sods” feature small plates to share, including classic mussels ($16), house smoked catfish ($10), Thai Basil Shrimp Salad ($14), and Boudin Balls ($9).
Our group that night included three of us — me, my husband and 11-year old son Nate (junior foodie). Nate is used to traveling for “research,” and said he felt like Ollie Irene was a welcoming space to learn about variations in food he’s learning about. (As parents, we also felt like it was the kind of place where a kid his age would be welcomed. That’s always a plus.)
So here’s the run down:
We started with an order of the pub fries ($7). Served with house mayo on the side, they are huge and delicious.
We also ordered from the Mozza Bar ($8-10). New to the restaurant, Chris Newsome and team make mozzarella each day in house, and offering four variations: Modest Mozza (with olive oil and sea salt), Mushrooms and Mint (with marinated mushrooms and mint pesto), Mozza and Bacon (featuring radicchio, bacon onion jam, and picked mustard seeds). We opted for the Lemon Crunch, with preserved lemons, crispy breadcrumbs, cerignolas, and parsley.
The hand-stretched mozzarella (above, right) was a subtle delight, with the lemon complementing its taste and texture. (And it was just as good as the loads of mozzarella one of our diners had just eaten in Tuscany.)
The House Made Sausage ($11) with sweet and sour red onions and garlic toast satisfied even the most picky of our diners, the Junior Foodie. (Leftovers also made for a good addition to our breakfast the next day.)
For our entrees we had the Seafood Stew ($24) and the Gulf Shrimp and Chorizo ($30). Here’s the Seafood Stew, filled with good portions of shrimp, mussels and catfish in a spicy green curry with cilantro, ginger, coconut milk and lime:
The Gulf Shrimp and Polenta is served with capers, and cerignolas served over soft polenta:
As we were finishing our meals, we chatted with Anna Newsome, complementing her on the excellent job with the atmosphere, food, and service. Just as before, the restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood place, with a chef who has put in his time training and evolving his craft.
Case in point: the chicken liver pate, a closely guarded recipe passed down from a mentor. When Anna learned our junior foodie had expressed an interest in trying, she sent one right over for him to try. While the junior foodie is still not sure he’s a chicken liver pate fan, we were absolutely sold, both with the flavor and Anna’s kindness.
For a finale, we ordered Le Kit Kat, chocolate mousse and peanut butter crunch bars served with a shot of milk ($10). Fantastic.
Our overall take: The Newsomes have outdone themselves with Ollie Irene 2.0. It’s the kind of place we’ll take our friends when they visit Birmingham, and meet with local pals for an early bite.
We imagine that it will become one of the hottest tables in town, and for good reason. This is well thought, well-made food that calls on classical technique without being fussy.
Expect it to be on the food media radar too. Chris Newsome continues to represent the evolution of our region’s food culture, and we won’t be surprised when the Best New Restaurant lists are published and award seasons rolls around.