By Elizabeth Winslow
You'd never know it from the charming presence, but Olamaie was born after hours in a dark bar—in this case, where chef Michael Fojtasek and general manager Ben Hickerson, both sons of the South, met to relax after shifts at New York City's Lincoln Ristorante. Fresh out of culinary school, Fojtasek waxed poetic about his dreams for a refined Southern restaurant, with gracious, meticulously prepared versions of the food that's been served on back porches and in dining rooms throughout the South for generations.
Several years later, Fojtasek called Hickerson to say he was actually doing it, with co-chef Grae Nonas on board. Was Hickerson in? Hickerson in turn called culinary school buddy Steven Carson, and the four set off on a road trip through Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Low Country. They avoided much publicized restaurants of the "new South" in favor of the back-road soul food joints, historic boardinghouses, and old-school steak-and-seafood spots.
The meals from that trip inspire the menu at Olamaie. Named for Fojtasek's mother, and the three generations of Olamaies before her, the restaurant serves the kind of fresh, soulful Southern food your great-grandmother might have made before convenience foods made their way to the table. There's plenty of pork fat, gravy, and butter on the menu, but the resulting dishes are light, even delicate, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and a playful respect for tradition.
Beautifully designed by the Dallas firm Staffelbach, the space is soothing and polished, with a wraparound porch and an entry that leads into a back parlor where cool cocktails await. A sense of place is apparent in Salt and Pepper Cucumbers, served atop tangy buttermilk creme fraiche, dressed with sunflower seeds, sprouts, and petals, which calls to mind a late-summer field and buzzing cicadas. The made-to-order biscuits are revelatory—golden and crisp on the outside, they arrive nestled in a linen napkin and break open to reveal airy layers ready to be spread with the accompanying sorghum butter. The cornbread, too, is pitch-perfect, baked in an iron skillet and doused with silky stewed okra and tomatoes. A tale of the African diaspora, Smoky Hen of the Woods Mushroom with braised peanuts, smoky tomato likker, and sorghum shallots has history in its DNA. The cultural contrast of country club favorites—a reimagined green been casserole and tomato aspic atop shrimp mousse—reads as interesting rather than oblivious. Entrees like the meltingly tender Bavette Wagyu Steak or thick-cut and aromatic Sweet Tea Red Wattle Pork Chop are hearty without being heavy. If the evening's nice, wander to the back porch for apple pie with house-made ice cream.
As much as we enjoyed what was on our plates, we found ourselves caught up in musing about food culture. How does history become taste? Tied up in a past rife with exploitation and sticky class issues, Southern food has a deeply complicated backstory, but somehow it feels deliciously safe, ensconced in Olamaie's pearly gray dining room, to explore these dark roads.