By Laura McAlister
If you asked Chris Newsome to classify the kind of food he’s cooking up in his Mountain Brook restaurant, he’d probably hesitate.
“Do I have to?” he recently answered when questioned about the menu of the restaurant he co-owns with his wife Anna.
If pressed further, the chef would probably say that he focuses on a cooking technique and then uses fresh, local ingredients to serve up simple, recognizable food.
Really, it’s just good food, he said.
Chris and Anna opened Ollie Irene about seven months ago in what used to be Browdy’s in Mountain Brook Village. Since then, Chris’ “good food” has been packing the restaurant and also getting the small spot some big recognition.
Ollie Irene was recently nominated for the James Beard’s Best New Restaurant for 2012. The small Mountain Brook restaurant was up against some big city eateries, and even though it didn’t make the final cut, Anna and Chris said they couldn’t be more satisfied with their first seven months.
When Chris, originally from Mountain Brook, and Anna decided they wanted to open a restaurant, they knew they wanted it to be a neighborhood, casual place, where people could come from work and have a drink and a great bite to eat. The only thing the couple was unsure of was where to open such a place.
Chris has worked in great culinary cities, and Anna knows her way around a restaurant. While getting her master’s degree in historic preservation, she worked in restaurants as a bartender.
In addition to working with well-known Birmingham chefs Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings, Chris also has worked in five-star restaurants in Charleston, S.C., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., where he and Anna met some six years ago.
They considered all those locations for their own restaurant, but then the pizza place that was in the old Browdy’s building became available.
“We always wanted to be in a neighborhood,” Anna said. “And we wanted that pub kind of feel.”
Two months after acquiring the space in Mountain Brook Village, the couple, assisted by Birmingham decorator Edee Youngblood, renovated the interior to give the space more of the feel they were looking for. A display case was transformed into a bar, and the walls were painted a neutral color.
Like the decor of Ollie Irene, Chris wanted to keep the menu simple and also affordable while still bringing the best and freshest ingredients to the table.
While Birmingham has some great fine dining restaurants, he said, affordable gourmet fare is harder to come by.
“I just kind of wanted to bring it down about seven notches,” Chris said. “I’m not here to compete with what is already here. I wanted this to be casual food, which not really anybody else here is doing.”
Menu items, said Chris, are really old favorites done his way. Take the burger, for instance. The Ollie burger is topped with mild blue cheese compound butter, caramelized bourbon onions on the house bun and served with pub fries and butter pickles. For added flavor you can get it with truffle butter.
Chris and Anna said their restaurant’s regulars all have their favorites. In addition to the burger, the mussels are a popular pick. They’re steamed with white wine, shallots, garlic and herbs.
Ollie Irene also offers specials every night.
Whatever is being served up, Chris said you can be sure it’s fresh and something you’ll be able to recognize.
Since he named the restaurant after his grandmother, whose picture hangs on the wall inside the front door, Chris said the menu had to be fresh, right from the farm. Ollie Irene was the wife of a sharecropper in South Alabama. Her house was the place everyone came to eat, he said, and she was always serving farm-fresh simple meals.
What would she think of her grandson’s place?
“I think she would be incredibly impressed that I named a restaurant after her,” Chris said. “But she wouldn’t get this.”
Ollie Irene wasn’t one for restaurants. She did the cooking for her friends and family.
For those who enjoy dining out, though, Ollie Irene offers a little bit of something for almost anyone in a friendly environment. Chris and Anna are quick to chat with their customers, and in the last seven months, they said, the staff has become like family.
Their restaurant is just what the couple wanted it to be – a casual place with good food.
Ollie Irene is open only for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The bar opens from 4-5:30 p.m., serving cocktails and pub plates, and the full menu is served from 5:30-10 p.m.
Ollie Irene takes reservations only for parties of six or more, which means you may have to wait – the restaurant only seats 70 – but what’s the hurry?
“We don’t want to take reservations, and we’re not a lunch place,” Anna said. “We really want people to just come in and hang out, have a drink at the bar.”
For more information or to view Ollie Irene’s menu, visit www.ollieirene.com.