Chef Philippe Thomelin is knocking on wood. It's Tuesday night after the dinner rush at his new restaurant Olivar, and he's come out to make the rounds, chatting with the late diners. A pair of women look a little flummoxed—this particular nicety doesn't happen much around here—then they're charmed in short order, relaxing into Thomelin's accent. Two well-groomed men with iPhones by their plates have a discussion with him in French. At a third table, someone asks how business has been.
"It's been more than a month, and we're still open," he says, rapping his knuckles twice on the glossy composite-lumber table.
Thomelin was very conservative with his numbers, he goes on, pragmatism to accompany his understandable superstition: The space that Olivar now occupies appears somewhat jinxed. (Then there's the economy, more dire by the day.) Known for its interior nouveau-deco murals of a Pushkin fairy tale, the lovely low-ceilinged room in Capitol Hill's historic Loveless Building started out as the Russian Samovar, then languished for years as a Greek restaurant to which no one ever seemed to go. Then came the bad luck for the two most recent chef/proprietors. First Scott Simpson (of Blue Onion Bistro fame) opened Fork, critically acclaimed fine dining with meant-to-be-witty comfort-food elements. After six months, Simpson closed Fork down, later saying he'd succumbed to physical and mental-health problems, become a hermit, and ballooned to 469 pounds. (He's since gotten gastric-bypass surgery, recovered, and launched the popular fancy hamburger stand Lunchbox Laboratory in Ballard.) Then Sue McCown, the award-winning pastry chef of Earth & Ocean, opened a dessert lounge called Coco la ti da. It collapsed after three months amid problems with her business partner. (In the Seattle Times, she called it "the worst year of my life." She then worked for a year in R&D at Starbucks; she was just laid off. Now she's talking about moving.)
But this Tuesday night—knock on wood—feels right, with Olivar full and lively. Thomelin's got both charm and chops, with restaurant experience in his native France, his adopted home of Spain (where he ran a tapas bar in Andalusia), and, locally, at Harvest Vine, Rover's, and Cascadia. Olivar is more reality-based than its two predecessors with their $14 "Lobster 'Corn Dogs'" (Fork) and $11 Carrot Cake Liquid Dessert (Coco Etc.). The menu leans safely Spanish, with small plates that aren't actually that small, especially for the cost. The Spanish and French wines (with a few local options) skew toward the kind of varietals and prices that encourage ordering more instead of dreading the check—two-thirds of the bottles on the 30-plus list are under $30, some significantly so, with glasses from $6 to $9. And the still-lovely room feels more like a neighborhood hangout—like a fine evening out that's also fun—where Fork was consciously formal and Coco Etc. was in a forced, mod-girly mode.
As for the food, it's the kind of good, solid value with great bright spots that can make for many regulars. The small plates from the specials list are especially worthy of exploration: a commendable rabbit-liver mousse with brioche toast triangles, like savory cake with silky-rich meat-frosting, for only $7; pillowy little clams with crumbles of morcilla sausage, the sea meeting the faint taste of iron fantastically, also just $7; delicious medallions of rabbit saddle stuffed with chorizo, rabbit liver, and bread crumbs, served cold with caramelized onion, arugula, and frisée, $8. At one dinner, the server discouraged ordering a ham terrine special, saying briefly and frankly that it wasn't her favorite; in combination with what she did recommend and why, she was a gem. Olivar's staff is exactly friendly enough, intuiting a table's pace in an admirable (and, with small plates, necessary) way.
From the regular menu—which changes regularly—a roasted beet salad ($8) exemplified the unstartling but completely enjoyable swath of Olivar's menu: It's a dish that's ubiquitous right now, but this had a pretty, radial arrangement, with unsurprising but tasty reduced balsamic and an accent of big grains of salt among the arugula. As elsewhere at Olivar, the portion was not stingy; every bite was eaten. Thomelin makes his albóndigas, classic Spanish meatballs, with lamb seasoned by a Moroccan red pepper that colors them extra rosy, and they come in a row atop cubes of tender eggplant and a citrusy tomatillo purée (between a first and second visit, the price came down from $10 to $9). Gnocchi is served with changing accompaniments, and while the latest one ($11) was a little odd—wild mushrooms, cherry tomatoes with their cooked skin on, gratings of Manchego, and a base of mushroom purée that made an unsettling fluffy-on-fluffy match with the airy dumplings—it, too, got eaten all up.
Thomelin could occasionally exercise a little more nerve with the spices. A paella-like entrée ($17) had tender seafood but wanted more saffron, more salt, more something. A stewy tomato-braised pork ($9) fell apart marvelously—and its ciabatta-esque house-made bread, studded with fennel and coriander seeds, was warm and wonderful—but its rosemary was tentative, its flavor less than bold.
But a couple of recent desserts were themselves alone worth a trip to Olivar: a rich but not-too-sweet olive-oil cake with a small scoop of the densest possible honey-flavored ice cream and a bit of basil syrup, and a perfect crème caramel with a perfect caramel-flavored madeleine. These were bargains at $6 each, particularly considering Olivar's upmarket presentations—lots of white space and elegance.
Among all the good things that Olivar has going for it, the fortuitous opening of Poppy—the brand-new restaurant by Jerry Traunfeld of Herbfarm renown—just up the street may be the saving grace. This end of Broadway is poised for a renaissance, with new condos and a new Vivace also coming soon, and Olivar is ready for its role.