Todd English Reboots Olives
by mat schaffer
Olives has become as much a recognizable symbol of Boston as the Red Sox, the Boston Pops, and Old Ironsides. Since 1989, Todd English’s restaurant has been an enduring presence in the Hub dining scene, as its proprietor went from just another local chef to international culinary superstar. Twenty-three years ago, when English and his then-wife, Olivia, opened a 60-seat storefront on Main Street in Charlestown, patrons lined up for hours to dine on the robust, Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, dished up in Brobdingnagian portions. In 1992, the lines grew even longer when the couple moved their restaurant several blocks to the current location in City Square, doubling its seating capacity. Olives begat multiple restaurants around the world, four cookbooks, a cookware line, a PBS television series, and many accolades for English, including a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Northeast nod in 1994 and Bon Appétit’s 2001 Restaurateur of the Year award. That same year, People magazine named English one of its “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”
This past May, after closing for two years after a grease fire and undergoing a major face-lift, Olives reopened with a revamped menu. English wanted to reboot the restaurant. “The landscape of the Boston dining scene changed a lot in those two years,” he says. “Two thousand seats were added—which are a lot of seats—and a lot of emphasis went to the waterfront. I wanted [the new Olives] to be more local, more neighborhood.” Longtime fans will embrace this new incarnation. Expanded windows make the room feel bigger and brighter. A rectangular, darkstained oak bar in the center, which seats 45, attracts both drinkers and diners—a mix of casually dressed neighbors, business people, and curious foodies. If you sit in one of four seats at the back counter you can watch Executive Chef James Klewin and his staff bustle around the granite open kitchen with its flame-spewing ovens. (English himself is in the kitchen one or two nights a week.) VIPs are seated at the window tables by the corner of Main and Park Streets, the better to get a view of the entire establishment. Over the years, celebrity guests have included members of the band REM, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Affleck, Jon Lester, Shawn Thornton, and Fatboy Slim. No less a culinary icon than Julia Child was an early English supporter and Olives diner.
Several original Olives dishes remain on the menu: English’s signature beef carpaccio; butternut squash-filled tortelli in brown-butter and sage sauce; and the vanilla soufflé (it still calls for a 12-minute wait). The yellowfin tuna tartare recipe hasn’t changed in 23 years. But you’ll also want to try recent dishes: stuffed clams, overflowing with corn ittle different.” bread, clam, and diced pancetta; lobster “toast,” consisting of butter-poached claw meat on toasted brioche with a Mason jar of tomalley-colored lobster corn soup; and cockles aglio spaghettini pasta tossed with basil pesto, olive oil, and nickel-sized clams. Eponymous Todd English Bluepoint oysters come from English’s oyster farm in Westport, Connecticut.
Flatbread tarts with flaky puff pastry crusts are especially good. (The classic San Marzano tart with tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and basil is a standout.) Split roasted chicken breast with garlicky spinach, puréed potato, and chickeny jus boasts crisp skin and juicy meat. Grilled marinated skirt steak painted with molasses BBQ sauce and served with creamed corn and shredded short rib-filled raviolios is quintessential English with its brash, layered flavors and creative pairings. Dessert can be chewy, warm, chocolatechip cookies; custardy brown-butter panna cotta; or a trio of fresh-baked cupcakes from Isabelle’s Curly Cakes, the Beacon Hill cupcakery named for English’s 19-year-old daughter. All three English children—Isabelle, 22-year-old Oliver, and 16-year-old Simon—worked at Olives over the summer.
“Simon was in the kitchen a little bit, Oliver was working the front, and Izzy was working the front as well,” their father says. “It was awesome. I spent a lot of time at work when they were younger so there were times [with them] that I unfortunately missed. But it was great to have them all around me and wild to see how much they’d naturally picked up just being around the restaurant; I mean they’ve been around the restaurant all their lives.”
English says he factored in his children in his decision to reopen Olives. “Roots are important to kids,” he says. “All the fun stories, all the times they spent there, all the chocolate fallen cakes they’ve eaten all those years. This is home.” Who would have ever guessed that confit chicken wings, beet and goat cheese agnolotti, and Chilean olive oil-poached halibut would qualify as home cooking?
photography by andy Ryan; photography courtesy of olives (exterior)