Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Olive Juice, Mid-City

The first time I went to the Olive Branch Cafe, I was under duress. I had locked my keys inside my car while returning books to the Mid-City library, already running late for a staff meeting at my job across town.  I needed to enlist someone to break into my car, and luckily for me, Olive Branch Cafe owner and manager, Russell "Rusty" Autry, was just the man for the job.

Well, to his credit, Rusty didn't actually break into my car. But he sat me down, gave me a root beer, and called one of his regulars who worked for Pop-A-Lock. In short, Rusty hooked me up in a big way, totally out of the kindness of his heart. He wouldn't even let me buy a bar tab for the Pop-A-Lock guy.

A few months later (while paying fines at that same library), I thought I'd have a proper meal at the Olive Branch. I sat down to enjoy a veritable feast of delicious food and quirky tidbits about Rusty's vision for the restaurant.

The Mid-City location is actually the third Olive Branch Cafe in New Orleans; the original two are pizzerias on the Westbank. In its three years of operation in the American Can Building, it has offered an eclectic menu spanning the cuisines of Cajun country (jambalaya, red beans and sausage), the Mediterranean (Italian sub, hummus tahini), and beyond (Cuban sandwich, "Asian-inspired" Shastri sandwich).

My dining companion and I indulged in the sweet citrus salad, the flavorful eggplant sandwich, and the surprisingly tasty match of bleu cheese and sweet potato chips. "We try to do foods creatively," the kitchen head, Chef Mike, explained. "But nothing too fancy."

"The concept is always developing," Rusty said, describing how his business is more than just food. "We want to provide a really good neighborhood feel."

The taste of Louisiana is found not only in the smoky balsamic dressing on an off-the-menu Gulf shrimp salad, but also in the artwork adorning the restaurant's walls. Rusty took care to incorporate local flavor in the decorations, proudly pointing out that the hand-crafted fleur de lis suspended from the dining room ceiling is "probably the largest fleur de lis in the city." Mixed-media installations utilize artistically repurposed storm debris from Hurricane Katrina.

To the tunes of a pop-tastic 80s dance soundtrack, we ate our way through enormous portions of garlicky cayenne-spiced hummus, a customized redfish and spinach wrap - the kitchen is very accommodating of a la carte and vegetarian orders - and what seemed like an endless pile of perfectly
textured sweet potato fries.

Two hours later, we walked out with to-go boxes, Chef Mike's recipe for the balsamic Gulf shrimp salad - "They say chefs shouldn't share their secrets, but why not?" - and a promise to return soon. As soon as those library books need to be renewed.

* * * Simulcast on NOLADefender.com!

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