Gastropubs were the trend five years back, I thought as I crossed the threshold at Ollie Irene. Back when bar food with integrity was a novelty. Before chefs got sotted on the promise of heirloom pigs and salumi cured from their parts. Before garter-sleeved bartenders from Hahira to Helena began to mix drinks with Prohibition-era pedigrees.
But then I ate my way through the menu at this year-and-a-half-old gastropub, set in a faux-Tudor shopping center in Mountain Brook, over the hill from Birmingham. I spooned a bowl of thyme-perfumed chowder, bobbing with fat Alabama oysters. I dunked rhomboids of duck-fat-fried potatoes in homemade mayonnaise. I sliced into a pink-blushed hunk of chicken liver pâté and assembled a free-form sandwich with planks of toast and pickled cherries. And as a second glass of wine found its mark, I reconsidered that dismissal.
From a perch at the bar, next to a black and white of a hunter with a brace of squirrels, in sight of a chalkboard scrawled with drink specials like Snake Handler double IPA for five bucks a pint, I watched regulars claim seats in a green-wainscoted dining room, accented with peacock etchings and taxidermied ducks. And I eavesdropped as every third patron told his server something like, I was on my way to the Western and ended up here.
The Western, set in the same shopping center, is the neighborhood grocery for Mountain Brook. It serves this community of social and business strivers in the same way that the PX serves soldiers deployed overseas or a chips-and-candy canteen serves summer campers. Ollie Irene, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Chris and Anna Newsome, aspires to be the Western of restaurants. Named for Chris’s grandmother, a farm woman from southern Alabama, it meets that goal, functioning as a locus for everyday indulgence, where the food pleases, maybe even surprises, but doesn’t demand connoisseurship from diners.
Anna runs the business. Chris runs the kitchen. A Birmingham-born restaurant lifer, he revives tired dishes such as tuna tartare, which he binds with lemon oil, molds into quenelles, and serves atop fried yucca crisps. And he rolls and cuts his own pasta for duck tagliatelle, which arrives rich and glossy with red wine.
What’s more, Chris serves a pub breakfast, which translates from the English gastropub playbook as a farm egg and toasted croutons, awash in garlic cream, presented in a country-ham-lined round of china. And he dishes the best catfish I’ve eaten in a restaurant that sets its tables with linen napkins. Panfried, sauced with lemon butter, scattered with diced sweet potatoes and cumin-scented ham, it’s a showcase for the possibilities of whiskered fish.
All praise aside, the restaurant has its faults. Each of the cocktails I drank was too sweet. And, as is the case all too often in restaurants both grand and humble, waiters asked, as I chased a nub of sweet potato around my plate or nibbled at the last sliver of ham, “Are you still working on that?” Dinner is labor, those queries implied, not pleasure.
But all sins were forgiven when a call for dessert dispatched an orb of bittersweet Vietnamese coffee–bourbon ice cream. And a crock of pleasantly chewy rice pudding, topped with a mica sheet of blowtorched sugar. If Ollie Irene is a gastropub circa 2013, well, I seem to like gastropubs.