Some restaurant corners have all the luck. In the case of the sunny Queen Village bistro space at South Fifth and Bainbridge Streets, that luck has mostly been bad.
I’m not even talking about the food. Because the flavors have been pretty good to great over the long-rolling succession of operators I’ve reviewed there, from the spicy corn cakes and penang curries of East of Amara to the French cassoulet at Coquette; the smoked buttermilk pierogies (and weird Tastykake sliders) at Adsum; and the pepper pot soup, rabbit tetrazzini, and shoofly pie of its last occupant, Whetstone, which invested big in renovations. Every one of those restaurateurs, I’m sure, believed they were planting deep roots in one of Philly’s most stable and restaurant-friendly neighborhoods. And every one of them withered.
Poor Coquette even had a car crash into its facade. Another occupant, Tapestry, didn’t elicit enough interest to merit a review. So as I now consider Olly, the sixth occupant in 20 years at this seemingly pleasant but apparently cursed space, I’m wondering if co-owners Chris D’Ambro and Marina de Oliveira are either deluded or know a secret code to break the spell.
Will it be those aromatic fried chicken wings crackling with star anise and togarashi spice? The brassica power of charred broccoli transformed into Caesar salad? The wines on draft? The classic Euro beers? Ambitious daily specials like the Thursday suckling pig? Or perhaps this corner will find its staying groove in the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas and rustic breads that will come from GiGi, the adjoining pizzeria this couple is opening soon. (Labor Day, according to D’Ambro.)
Only time will judge if their something-for-everyone approach at Olly is the sustainable path. But these two are at least well-suited to make a run, having already successfully bonded with the neighborhood over their ambitious remake of Southwark and its tiny Italian tasting-menu sibling, Ambra, one block away on Fourth Street.
Queen Village has already had a stellar year for new restaurants upgrading old spaces (see: Fiore, Sakana, Cry Baby Pasta). That means yet another place will either build on that momentum or begin to feel redundant. I’m not yet convinced Olly has quite made its case on the three-bell level of those other newcomers. But D’Ambro, who knows the area well enough to realize one block can separate two distinct dining pools — with the Fifth Street foot traffic funneling off South Street slightly less spendy than the more resident-driven crowd on Southwark’s Fourth Street — has decided the concept for Olly must present both flexibility and relative value.
There are cheese balls, burgers, and fancy trail mix nibbles with $5 wines for the enthusiastic six-day happy-hour program; three days of brunches; a dedicated kids’ menu (made with real food); and an à la carte menu that’s almost entirely $20 and under. But then there are also high-end sharing splurges in the nightly specials, like the two-pound slab of prime rib for $88 on Friday nights.
As a rule, attempting to be everything to everyone is a recipe for no identity at all — a risk in such a busy restaurant landscape. But there are always exceptions, and the fact that a massive dry-aged rib eye we shared on a $78 splurge was one of the best cuts of beef I have eaten this year, its thick slices of rosy meat basted in herbed garlic butter, shows the potential here to stretch toward the high-end, too. (The Friday prime rib has replaced it.)
If Olly’s kitchen can settle down and deliver quality cooking on such a diverse range of offerings, it can certainly be a success. My enthusiasm is hedged a little by some inconsistency with over-seasoning, which I’ll get to in a moment. But to date, my meals there were largely enjoyable, built on scratch preparations, good ingredients, and seasonal impulses.
The service was outgoing and professional, and helpful in guiding us through whimsical cocktails named after song lyrics as well as the well-chosen wines, from La Gitana manzanilla, Gotham Project Riesling, and Argyle pinot on draft to Tokaj Furmint, a sparkling Bordeaux rosé, and a North Coast Cali zin (Whole Shebang) that was a perfect burger match.
This kitchen is particularly strong with the small-plate nibbles, from that trail mix, updated with Moroccan-spiced chickpeas and heirloom popped corn from Castle Valley Mills, to sweetly pickled kohlrabi spears dusted with the tangy Mexican seasoning Tajín. The cheese ball gets a real-cheese upgrade, with Comté and sheep’s Gouda called Ewephoria blended with cream cheese, then rolled in fresh herbs and toasted walnuts. It’s the perfect emblem for the goal here, to update some prosaic items with a quality wink. Herbed yogurt replaces the usual ranch for those chicken wings — and also muted the twinge of a heavy-handed salting that occasionally hampered my second meal.
Olly puts vegetables front and center in full-flavored presentations that can reveal the layers in a single ingredient. Charred cauliflower over sumac-tanged yogurt also came with a clever romesco made from smoked cauliflower scraps blended with fennel and almonds that lent each bite a dusky cauliflower echo effect. Likewise, the juice of roasted mushrooms is reduced into a vinaigrette that fortified the earthiness of a portobello carpaccio tangled with frisee, toasted hazelnuts, and ribboned carrots.
Crushed sweet peas with pickled Fresnos highlighted the good house sourdough used for toast. Fried baby artichokes scattered with fennel bread crumbs and lemon zest come with a creamy golden saffron aioli dip. (Say it: “ai-Olly!”) Fresh green favas, ramps, and asparagus added seasonal snap, alongside Parmesan crisps, to the melty puffs of ricotta gnudi glazed in a light lemon butter.
Roasted tomatoes, whipped with tahina into baba ghanoush, made an intriguing accompaniment for the lamb meatballs, which were flavorful but a little tough. I was more disappointed that the meatballs replaced a heartier spring tart of lamb braise tucked into a savory crust with Swiss chard and golden raisins. It made me wish the seasons didn’t always have to be honored.
For all its many good dishes, though, a few stumbled over clumsy seasoning, a basic error that’s easily fixed, but one still capable of ruining an otherwise good meal, like the beautiful swordfish steak presented as a Nicoise, ringed by a chunky potato salad in gribiche sauce, that was actually too salty to continue eating. The Tuesday BBQ chicken special suffered from a flavor culture clash: The kitchen’s North African-inspired spice rub — fennel, cumin, coriander, and star anise — refused to harmonize with the treacly sweet Americana of a barbecue sauce made from vanilla-heavy root beer.
The Moroccan move was more convincing — and subtle — with mussels seasoned with chermoula, an herb blend that added a fresh garden zing to the buttermilk broth steeped with fennel and ginger bathing those clean and tender mollusks.
Olly was also solidly in its wheelhouse with more straightforward comforts. The fried chicken dinner, now a Monday night regular, seals brined organic Bucks County birds inside deep-brown buttermilk crunch alongside the picnic fixin’s of a flaky biscuit, creamed greens, pickles, potato salad sparked with ramps, and a punchy, house-fermented hot sauce.
There’s no underestimating the power of a great burger to help forge a frequent habit with the locals. And Olly’s is a winner worthy of citywide note. The 6.5-ounce patty is a Debragga blend of short rib, chuck, and brisket laced with dry-aged beef fat, and it’s placed over a perfectly sized, fresh-baked Parker House bun that’s able to absorb the gush of juices without busting. It also molds supplely around the ample toppings: cornichon aioli, aged Lancaster cheddar, crunchy romaine, and bacon jam that adds a whiff of sweet and savory smoke to this umami sandwich. I’d return for this $16 satisfaction any day.
I’d also always finish with the cobbler, the best of Olly’s limited trio of desserts, which nailed blueberry season by focusing on the elemental goodness of ripe summer fruit. The berries are simply baked raw with sugar beneath crunchy dabs of biscuit dough, then topped with a creamy yellow scoop of tangy buttermilk ice cream.
All the buttermilk used here is actually a by-product of the fresh butter made at Southwark, an efficient cross-utilization between two restaurants that’s a good example of one reason D’Ambro and de Oliveira took the gamble on this corner. It represented a chance to deepen the roots of their nascent restaurant group, offer new opportunities for loyal staff, and grow extra kitchen space — especially with the coming bakery — to enhance their ability to making everything in house: “We want to close the loop,” says D’Ambro.
Some work remains to be done. But the prospects here are good. And if Olly succeeds in honing its own role as an all-purpose bistro for quality value dining, it has a legitimate shot to change the luck on a corner where so many others have failed.