In to the food desert between Downtown and Produce Row, bravely came Chuck Hernandez — and not with a burger or pizza joint. That would have been too easy. It would not have fit his food philosophy. And it would not have done justice to O'liva at this handsomely repurposed corner of Plaza de Armas across from City Hall. The repointed limestone walls, the burnished wood floors, the rugged, exposed ceiling structure ... all of this demanded more and Hernandez responded with a menu that supports seasonality, local farmers and artisan suppliers — olive oil, not unsurprisingly, among them.
A tasting of three Salud de Paloma olive oils with grilled bread and flatbread is one way to start. Cold-pressed in Dripping Springs, the oils come in natural, Meyer lemon, garlic and chili pepper infusions. I'd be tempted to toss in a natural for one of the flavored versions — probably the chili, as it came across a little strident. And I'd be remiss in not noting that the accompaniments (you get three for $6) almost outshine the oils. The chunky babaganoush, the robust muhamarra and the stiffer-than-most hummus, all demanded more bread. Per request, it was cheerfully supplied. (It's worth noting here, because, why not, that Hernandez seems to have recruited an especially cheerful bunch of servers.)
A fourth condiment, the lusty olive tapenade, asserted itself in the Ba Ba Burger based on local ground lamb and additionally graced with Bibb lettuce, tomato relish and, most importantly, a gently fried egg. To be blunt, knife and fork it: this burger is a hot mess; the flimsy bun tosses in the towel from the opening bell and the egg runs all over everything ... but it's a robust and tasty mess. And that runny yolk is great with the side salad of romaine, kale and blue cheese. I liked this with a glass of good Spanish Tempranillo, the only wine available at that moment. There is more to come, along with a wine-tasting program (the appropriate license, I'm told, has just been received), and I'm hoping for an outgoing white to partner an ahi tuna aguachile or the Slappin' the Bass ceviche. A Smoky Swine sammie with pickled cabbage could swing both ways, wine-wise. Vegans can take comfort in the Portabellizo enchilada with alternative chorizo. And everybody should try to get back to the historic heart of the city. Downtown Tuesday with its free evening parking beckons.
On those Tuesday evenings, there may be a guest chef (some chef-shuffling is already going on in the open kitchen) holding forth to add variety to an already varied menu. At all times, there are a few dedicated parking spaces in front of O'liva if further enticement were needed for those not living or working Downtown. And, to further stir the pot, a lunchtime Chef's Table prevails on Monday through Wednesday. Normally, I tend to ignore buffets, even ones of the pop-up variety, but this one looked enticing enough to explore. The main event was grilled chicken with roasted red peppers, there was a super-chunky vegetable soup with corn on the cob, a kind of grilled salad with curried cauliflower as its star and a Green Goddess-like dressing as an acolyte provided a vegetarian option, and there were both leafy vegetarian and meatier club-inspired sandwiches. All, plus more of that hummus, some dainty cookies and fresh fruit for $10.
Since the selection likely won't be the same again, let's just say that it was all good — from the fearlessly grilled chicken to the well-dressed veggie sammie. But, as virtuous as the thin and fragrant cookies were, I had my heart set on something more substantial for dessert. Bring on the brownie spiked with chile and mint, stuck with shards of hazelnut brittle and dribbled and drizzled with white chocolate sauce and what appeared to be a spiked strawberry purée — though your guess is as good as mine. Verdict: this brownie is of the light, not leaden persuasion. The heat level is perfect, and the whole thing sings — more than making up for the unavailability of the salted caramel olive oil ice cream.
Note: late breakfast is served Monday through Saturday; Sunday sees a hearty brunch from 10:30 a.m. through 2:30 p.m.
115 Plaza de Armas, Suite 107, (210) 229-2638, olivasa.com
The Skinny: Fresh food options in Downtown? No, really, and Chuck Hernandez is your man.
Best Bets: Ba Ba Burger, olive oil tasting (ask for an un-flavored oil) with added accompaniments, dried chile and mint brownie.
Hours: 10:30am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 8:30am-2:30pm. Sun.