A review of Olympia Provisions, By Roger Porter
Like impatient readers who sneak a look at the last page of a novel, I have a tendency to scan the dessert selections on a menu before checking out anything else. It’s probably because I want to gage my appetitive capacity to decide if I’ll save room for a sweet, or simply wish to plan my dinner with the tastes lined up in a satisfyingly intelligible, sensible, and sensuous way. And so it was that I got a bit perplexed when I read the first item of the dessert list at the recently opened Westside station of Olympia Provisions, and spotted “Chocolate salami.” Knowing that O.P. makes first-rate house-cured meats, I feared that they had fallen prey to the zealous practice of combining meaty tastes with the dolce—Le Pigeon’s honey bacon apricot cornbread and maple ice cream being the most notorious local example–or, if not that, then an exuberant desire to keep their excellent charcuterie coming at you—endlessly.
But this recipe is an optical illusion: what looks like a dessert that mistakenly got mixed up with an order from a deli is in fact a startling concoction of bittersweet chocolate, cookie crumbs, pistachios and hazelnuts, with flat nuggets of orange peel and anise to echo the chunks of fat in appetizer meats, and a dusting of powdered sugar to simulate the whitish edible mold around more orthodox salamis. Chocolate salami is a perfect parenthesis to a dinner which might well begin with finocchiona, sopressatta, chorizo Andalucia, and other dry-cured salamis. Pair this sweet illusion with shortbread and orange marmalade and your head will spin with heady and ecstatic confusion.
The Westside Olympia Provisions is brighter and airier than its Eastside branch, which is tucked in an old warehouse near the ramps of the Morrison Bridge. Housed in the space that used to be Carlyle, the newer O.P. is a remote but wonderful neighborhood place in a place that is not remotely a neighborhood. It has only a handful of tables (one is communal), a small counter looking over the street, and a marble counter in front of the hectic kitchen, a fine place to absorb all the atmosphere of inevitably intense preparation, especially if you don’t mind an occasional flare-up of the cooks’ tempers just as fat hits a flaring pan, mere inches from your nose. I’ve always thought that listening to cooks cooking professionally is an absorbing occupation, probably as compelling an activity as dropping in on surgeons at work. If there are just one or two of you, head for the counter and get in on the action. Watching a line of plump chickens turn on a rotisserie spit might also hold your attention for awhile, and the golden crackling skins will surely start your juices flowing—and believe me, you will be rewarded should you order one of these great birds. The décor at O.P. is simple but just right: a wall of wine bottles, some splendid hanging pots, jars of olives and pickles, and a case full of charcuterie to go. All in all, O.P. seems like a warm and welcome country bistro.
I suggest starting a meal with a plate of charcuterie made from pigs raised at Yamhill Valley’s Carlton Farms, Eugene’s Sweet Briar Farms, and other local purveyors. Olympia Provisions’ meats are all over town now, and there’s a reason. Even the hardest of the salamis is tender, and all of the dozen-odd styles are packed with deep, rich flavor. At $3 an ounce, you get around 7 or 8 coin-sized slices; probably three choices for two persons is sufficient to go with a glass of chilled Tissot Cremant de Jura, a lightly sparkling white with hints of almonds, honey, and apple. I’m a fan of the Saucisson d’Alsace, which plays cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg off against the smoky pork; the chorizo rioja loaded with sweet and smoky paprika, garlic, and oregano, which pairs nicely with a glass of Bourgeuil; or the Finocchiona, which, as its name asserts, is laden with fennel flavor.
The menu is quite small: a few simple starters such as raw oysters, olives and fried filberts, a couple of handsome salads, and above all an enormous bowl of soup. The pork and chickpea version is almost a light meal, and the potato-sorrel soup in a black pepper cream is hearty and yet, even in summer–especially this summer–not too heavy. There is one disappointing item, perhaps the only dish I had in three visits that hit well below the acceptable standard: bagna cauda (literally “warm bath”) with crudités. This classic starter from Piedmont, a peasant dish, is basically a hot dip for raw vegetables. Nothing more than a mixture of heated olive oil, bubbling butter, a bit of milk, a heap of anchovies, and a generous dose of garlic, it’s a bracing sauce traditionally for breadsticks and such vegetables as scallions, fennel, zucchini, sweet peppers, asparagus, or any others you wish; and chunks of rustic bread. Unfortunately, Olympic Provision’s version of the bath takes you to the showers, for it is merely a warm and weak vinaigrette. You wind up with nothing more than a tepid salad of raw veggies, a mere facsimile of the authentic thing.
The entrées, though few, are superb. The star is the roast chicken, and you can get a half a fowl or, for only another five-spot, the whole shebang. Broiled in the rotisserie, the chicken is finished in a pan to give the skin extra crispness. It’s just as good as the Platonic version of this dish, served at Zuni’s in San Francisco. And like that great restaurant which threatens to make chickens an endangered species so many birds do they sell, O.P.’s comes with a good bread salad and a generous showering of bacon for smoke and salt. The whole chicken lies enticingly on the plate, a glory of golden crackle– delectable, moist, and bursting with flavor–light and dark parts cooked to equal perfection. Almost as good, the ribeye is a beautiful, elemental steak, and comes with seared romaine, and a showering of grana padano, a cheese similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano but more grainy in texture and somewhat milder in taste; the ensemble is enhanced by a sprinkling of aged Balsamico for a nicely astringent experience. Romaine takes well to searing; it stands up nicely to fire and wilts just enough to drape over the steak, making you feel at once both happy and virtuous!
For a lighter meal, O.P. makes outstanding pasta, usually just one on any given night. They excel with unpretentious preparations, such as with a bowl of chitarra accompanied by nothing more elaborate than garlic, oil, fresh herbs, and breadcrumbs. Chitarra is a squared-strand, rough-textured pasta, made by extruding the dough through a machine with the same name—chitarra meaning “guitar” in Italian—a device that resembles a stringed instrument, perhaps more a zither than a guitar. The shape and surface of the strands allow ingredients to cling to them rather than slide off into the bottom of the bowl. I’m impressed as well by a deep dish of chorizo, clams, pickled peppers (yes, from that tongue-twister), garbanzos, and hunks of garlic bread to sop up the broth. With this Catalan-inspired recipe, you see how rusticity is the name of the game here, yet there’s a good deal of care and attention to get the dishes just right. Simplicity is never simple.
Let’s return to the desserts. So that I don’t seem to be a stickler for convention, I want to say I was impressed by O.P.’s slightly unorthodox but winning way with tiramisu. Usually made with ladyfingers, the concoction here seems more like a cake draped or perhaps infused with the usual ingredients (espresso, eggs, mascarpone, marsala, and several chocolates). The name of the dish means “carry me up,” and the assumption is that the destination is heaven. If not directed to that airy kingdom, my dessert was certainly light as a cumulous cloud and floated above its element. One of the best pure refreshing tastes I’ve had in moons is O.P.’s grapefruit ice, almost a granita, doused in Campari and mouth-puckeringly tart, chilling the tongue just short of numbness.
Casual but generally serious about its cooking, informal yet comfortable, simple yet vibrant, the Westside Olympia Provisions is a welcome place that brings inspired simplicity to the outer fringes of the northwest, beyond the hyped-up exuberance of the Pearl. The kitchen ranges widely—from France to Italy to Spain and back to the U.S.—yet it never feels gratuitously eclectic. The kitchen chooses what it likes and generally does it well. Some items will not seem rigorously authoritative or simon-pure, but with an exception or two, that’s both excusable and intriguing. It’s easy to see how, with its modest prices, hearty cooking, and low-keyed festive feel, the restaurant could even become one’s weekly canteen.
1632 N.W. Thurman St.
Hours: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Reservations; easy street parking; credit cards.
Full bar, with such favorites as Pimm’s Cup, Negroni, Spritz, and Cynar Café. The wine list is small, but the bottles are from choice, reasonably priced small producers mostly Italian and French. A nice touch is they serve “quartinos” (about one and a half glasses) as well as normal-sized glasses.