Modern Southern

Let me get this out of the way right up front: I like Mike Stoltzfus. I'm fond of his restaurant, Coquette, and I'm fond of the guy personally. But that said, If I hadn't had a good meal at his new venture, Sweet Olive, I wouldn't be writing about it. Not because I like Stoltzfus, but because that's just not what I do here.

Fortunately, I did have a good meal at Sweet Olive. Apart from a few quirks that weren't so much flaws as not to my personal taste, the experience was positive from soup to nuts.

Sweet Olive is housed in the Saint hotel at 931 Canal St. The hotel's décor is modernist, I suppose. There are diaphanous white drapes lining the windows that face Canal, and which also serve to divide the cavernous lobby into distinct spaces. Sweet Olive is located just at the entrance of the hotel; it's location and the fact that Sweet Olive is featured prominently in the hotel's exterior signage make clear that the restaurant is a selling point for the place.

There's a single large dining room separated by a few massive columns. A small bar with space for three or four stools occupies the back wall, though the stools are not in place as of this writing. The hotel does feature its own watering hole, the Burgundy Bar, for which Sweet Olive supplies a limited menu. It looks to be a decent spot to await a table if you show up early.

The service when I dined at Sweet Olive was outstanding. My servers knew the menu and were appropriately attentive. I wasn't expecting service at a restaurant that's been open only a few months to be so polished, but there you go. I dined on a Wednesday, at lunch, and the place was almost empty, but I would be surprised if the folks who served me didn't do a similar job when the place is packed.

Prior to ordering I was served a small flaky biscuit, a pimento-cheese pinwheel and a dish of Steen's-cane-syrup butter. Bread is important at a fine-dining restaurant. It's often the first thing you taste, and if it's mediocre or worse, it can color your impression of the place. The biscuit was damn near flaky perfection, and the pinwheel was delicious as well. It was an auspicious start.

Stoltzfus is going for “refined Southern” food at Sweet Olive, and the Maryland native is pulling off from what I've sampled. He's not trying so much to recreate traditional dishes as elevating them a bit. What I've had has been true in spirit to regional cuisine, but more sophisticated.

There's a three-course lunch special that costs $25, and I decided to go that route at a recent meal. I did add one à la carte course; I'm a sucker for well-made pickles, and I know from experience from  Coquette that Stoltzfus is consistently good in that regard. There's a pickle plate on the “small” section of the menu for $8 that came loaded with pickled sweet potato, spicy green beans, baby turnips, bread-and-butter cucumbers, dark red beets and hot-sauce-pickled green tomatoes. The pickles ranged in flavor from the spiciness of the green beans to the sweetness of the beets. The green tomatoes were milder than I anticipated from something pickled in hot sauce, and the sweet potatoes had an excellent, slightly crisp texture. The plate also featured tissue-thin potato chips made in-house and a small bowl of buttermilk dressing. I wasn't sure what exactly to do with the dressing, but it turned out that the baby turnips tasted pretty good coated with the tangy stuff, and it also benefitted the chips. On the dinner menu the pickles are listed under the “to share” section of the menu, and that's definitely the way to go. I ate a lot of pickles, but I felt slightly guilty leaving so many on the plate.

I started the 3-course menu with a bowl of collard-green-and-ham-hock gumbo. The soup was thick with slow-cooked greens and cubes of ham. The broth was dark and had a good bit of kick from chiles that were used in sufficient volume for a thin ring of red flakes to rim the bowl. It was a well-balanced dish, though I was glad I'd started with the pickles. After walking a dozen or so blocks to get to the place, the gumbo would have been a little much to start things off.

For the second course I went with the fried catfish. Two medium-sized fillets came fried in a cornmeal batter that was almost too crunchy. The fish was cooked absolutely perfectly; just done in the middle and so fresh it was almost sweet. The fillets were topped with a thinly shaved cabbage, carrot and parsley slaw, and served over a sauce piquant. There were slivers of shaved country ham over the dish that reminded me of parmesan cheese; as with parmesan, the purpose of the ham is to add both salt and pungency to the dish. The sauce was brick-red and tasted like it was made with a base of rich shellfish stock. Quartered baby beets were served alongside and bled a little pink color into the sauce. The beets were similar to those on the pickle plate, and maybe I'd already had my fill, but I didn't see what they brought to the dish aside from some color. They were sweet, but the plate didn't really need sweetness. I was glad I still had the pickles on the table, however, because the green tomato went really well with the fish. There was already a good textural contrast between the fish and the slaw, but the tartness of the pickle and the residual flavor of the hot sauce was nice.

Dessert was a chocolate pecan tart topped with a bourbon chantilly whipped ceam and with a schmear of caramel sauce on the plate. The crust was flaky and rich, and there was a good balance between the chocolate and the nuts in the filling. It wasn't too sweet, which I like, and both the whipped cream and the caramel sauce worked well. The dessert was the work of Zak Miller, who serves as executive pastry chef for both of Stoltzfus' restaurants. Mason Hereford is the chef de cuisine at Sweet Olive, and you can check out his dinner menu by following the link at the bottom of the restaurant's website. The lunch menu is a bit more restrained than what's on offer for dinner, but prices, which run between $8 and $12 for small plates and $14-17 for large plates, are lower.

Sweet Olive is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Call (504) 875-2600 to learn more.

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