There is a dark star at the center of the room. Todd English — chef, owner, father, brand — sits at his own bar, clad in a black suit, turning the stem of a glass of red between his fingers. He is at Olives in Charlestown, the restaurant that made him famous, burned in grease fires, and survived. After a two-year closure, in May it reopened, with James Klewin (David Burke Prime at Foxwoods) the executive chef. This should be a time for celebration, for glad-handing and gabbing with guests. But English sits alone. He has spent the night tasting dishes, interacting with cooks, showing that he is here, present, in his hometown — not at Olives in New York, Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Figs in Palm Beach, not at a glitzy food-and-wine festival in Vegas or Miami. The bar dominates the renovated restaurant, eclipsing even the impressive open kitchen; beneath a metal hood bearing the initials “TE,” a wood-fired oven belches smoke that stings the eyes. Dance music thumps, loud as at a club. Waiters squeeze between tightly placed tables, dropping dishes more than once. Guests cluster at the bar and on banquettes in front of tiny, marble-topped cocktail tables, yelling to make themselves heard. English is the still point at the center of the activity. His expression is brooding.
In the following days, he will announce the purchase of an oyster farm, naming the shellfish it produces after himself (the Todd English Blue Point). He will appear on the Food Network’s “Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell,” seeking a new executive chef for the New York branch of Olives. A vandal will repeatedly throw bricks at the Charlestown restaurant. In recent years, English has seemed overextended, dogged by rumors of closures, money owed to vendors and staff, lawsuits, and negative press. I might once have said the solution was simple: Shut down all but his most-successful restaurants, stop hawking cookware on infomercials, and come home. Step back into the kitchen at Olives. Remind everyone what made it, him, great in the first place.
Now, I don’t know. Here he is, in the house. The food tonight is, to be generous, mediocre. A $13 appetizer of mussels with curry glaze and potato espuma includes just four mussels, and the dish is cold. A $52 version of steak frites features soggy fries and an immense tomahawk steak that fails to deliver immense beef flavor. Salmon with artichoke barigoule is barely edible — an overcooked piece of fish crowned with gummy, flavorless stuffing, the artichokes prepared in a broth that tastes like kitchen scraps and dishwater. Even simple spaghetti pomodoro, made with nice fresh pasta, requires serious doctoring with salt at the table. Fortunately, the company is good; our three-course dinner turns into a four-hour marathon. And then there is that brooding expression. Maybe it’s a fluke, but on subsequent visits, English is absent. The food is much better. A meal lasts just long enough. It would stress me out to have my boss sitting right next to me as I work, reading each paragraph before I hit return. How about you?
So perhaps English should keep doing what he seems to enjoy more: appearing on TV, spending his time in bigger, faster-paced cities, and leaving Charlestown’s Olives in the hands of the people who are here every day. Because right now, it is just what it’s meant to be: a bustling, lively neighborhood restaurant that serves as a social hub for those who live nearby.
Before renovations, Olives was darker, filled with empty booths, dated. Modernized, it feels like a place you’d want to be: more windows than walls, sunflowers at the hostess station, glass bell-jar pendants dim over the wraparound bar, weathered wood panels framing the kitchen. The room is excruciatingly loud, but soundproofing has been ordered. (One night, no matter how many times we yell “FLUKE CRUDO!,” our waiter hears “tortelli,” which is what we get. On slightly quieter nights, when the staff can actually hear you, they are affable, attentive, and chatty.) There is nowhere to park, but valet service was just approved.
Change is still very much afoot. On each visit, Olives feels like a slightly different restaurant. One night there are chocolates at the end of the meal, with a “TE” sticker on them. We never get them again. Then there’s the night with a separate menu devoted to specials. The next time we’re in, there’s just the regular menu, printed with changed fonts on different paper, with additional categories — including three-, five-, and seven-course chef’s tasting menus. (Always, however, the menu is splattered with misspellings, nine on the most recent visit. This is eating out, not school, but it makes the restaurant look amateurish.)
As is the case with so many restaurants, consistency is the Achilles’ heel here. Dishes are undersalted or, more often, oversalted. Pasta is undercooked sometimes, overcooked others. If the expensive steak frites disappoints, the reasonably priced marinated skirt steak satisfies — flavorful meat cooked just right, served with short rib ravioli and corn pudding. Dry and wan spit-roasted chicken one night is countered by a perfectly cooked double-cut pork chop another. With Gorgonzola, mustard greens, and golden raisin dressing, the dish is anything but shy.
The menu features some clever presentations. A perfect, tiny lobster roll is served with a jar of intensely rich lobster-corn chowder and potato chips dusted with Old Bay; an eye-catching “stuffed clam” turns out to be a shell brimming with fried whole-belly clams over cornbread. Sweet pea panna cotta looks pretty, but it melts to a green puddle in the surrounding Parmesan cream, and the strong cheese overwhelms the delicate taste of peas.
Olives remains almost as devoted to big flavors as ever, and while the restaurant’s classics no longer feel particularly fresh, they often still taste pretty darn good. For instance, English’s carpaccio looks insane — a mountain of raw beef crisscrossed with sauces and capped with thick shavings of Parmesan. The dish showcases a riot of ingredients: balsamic-glazed onions, scallion aioli, Gorgonzola, potatoes. But just because it’s nonstop busy doesn’t mean it’s not tasty. The combination of butternut squash-stuffed tortelli with brown butter and sage seems a trope today, but when the flavors are in balance, the dish is still a pleasure. (Although if I had to choose between that and the bracing delight of fettuccine tossed with fresh, briny cockles and clams and a mother lode of garlic — a special one night — I’d ditch the tortelli without looking back.)
Desserts also lean toward the tried and true: falling chocolate cake, an admirably lofty but too-sugary vanilla souffle. Of course, Olives features sweets from Curly Cakes, the cupcake bakery that is a project of English’s daughter, Isabelle. Why pass up a chance for cross-promotion?
More than flavors, what has been modernized is Olives’ approach: more small plates, a focus on the bar (now with multiple flat-screens), a wide selection of wines by the glass. It seems to be working for the neighbors, from a group of dressed-up 20-something blondes to the white-haired businessmen eating beside them. Everyone is laughing and having a fine time. There’s no reason to brood.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.