Last week I spent a few hours at SFMOMA’s Richard Tuttle show. Described as a postminimalist, Tuttle creates multimedia works that are often no more than a few brushstrokes on a spiral-bound page or a wire nailed to a white wall. The exhibition is a collection of hundreds of gestures, many so small they carry the force of a passing thought. I found it all underwhelming at first, until I began noticing just how close the artist’s gaze is. Tuttle zeros in on not just a painted image but the way it crinkles the paper around it, not just at the canvas but the shadow it casts on the wall. By the end of the show, I felt as if I had been allowed to observe the meditation of a man who thinks, and looks, with delicate intensity.
He has a kindred spirit in Nathan Peterson, chef-owner of Olivia.
With one distinction: Most of the individual dishes at Peterson’s tiny Berkeley restaurant are quite good. Peterson himself comes from Bay Wolf, where he served under Michael Wild as chef off and on for fifteen years. Craving the opportunity to do his own thing on his terms — which meant a smaller scale, with fewer hours — he opened Olivia, named after his dog.
Intimate without being precious, the restaurant’s decor matches the food. Peterson took over a space on Dwight that once held Beggar’s Banquet, À La Carte and, for a heartbeat last year, Paw Paw. Its centerpiece is an amateur-built conical fireplace with an inset shelf for a short Buddha. Just below the ceiling, the room is ringed with painted ceramic tiles, set off like pale green stitches against the just-churned-butter of the walls. And in the back, another handmade touch, a stained-glass window of whirls of pink and mint. The carpet teems with paisley.
But the speakeasy-style booths that once darkened the room are gone, the windows let in more light, and the suburban-basement bar is now covered in zinc. What a change! The space no longer has to fight its quirks.
Peterson has designed a menu to match the size of his kitchen. It mutates steadily, the entrées more quickly than the appetizers, and sets an egalitarian pricing structure — $7 for appetizers, $19 for entrées, $6 for desserts. The wine list matches the menu for size and discipline; Olivia offers bottles, mostly French, from $20 to $50, and selects a single white, blush, and red to be offered by the glass, at $5 max.
Peterson forays widely abroad — a Catalan duck and lobster casserole here, a Moroccan lamb tagine there — without letting go of his Californian sensibility. Sometimes he plays his cards close to his chest, such as with a butter-lettuce salad animated only by a few fresh walnuts, a handful of see-through coins of radish, and here and there a spot of blue cheese. The acidity of the yogurt dressing prickled at the tongue, but otherwise the salad never lost its reserve. Sometimes he throws in all his chips, say, with corn pancakes lavished in a lemony cream sauce with chunks of smoked trout, bacon, and arugula. The sweetness of the corn staves off the salt and tang of the smoked ingredients, keeping the dish in balance.
But most of the time Peterson takes a postminimalist approach that outsimples the Chez Panisse folks, the acknowledged masters of the genre, reducing a dish to a few elements. On one entrée, he matched a cross-cut lamb shank with a mound of beans and a few braised baby carrots. On another he divided the plate into three sections: dark-green lentils, grilled halibut, and sautéed kale, garnished with a tablespoonful of champagne-shallot vinaigrette napped over the corner of the fish. Just how complete dishes like this can taste comes as a surprise. The big slab of lamb appeared roasted, but when I stuck a fork in it, I discovered it had been braised first — the meat pulled away in velvety shreds tinged with sweetness from red wine. The beans that accompanied them were simmered in a stock so concentrated that they became infused with the scent of the fresh herbs in the broth. The halibut was grilled expertly, the cracked pepper scattered over its surface a series of little shocks, the vinaigrette electrifying.
The best of Olivia’s basic-sounding desserts don’t just highlight summer fruit, they focus on it with an obsessive’s consuming love. You barely taste the crust on a crisp for the peaches and raspberries beneath. Nothing — not dark chocolate, not coffee — could overpower the purple-black juices in a blueberry cobbler, the biscuit on top a pastry sigh.
The tightrope that Peterson treads is a treacherous one, since most of the shifting and balancing of flavors that he does is invisible. When small flaws occur, they can appear like stumbles; you hold your breath and hope he rights himself soon. In one night’s vegetarian cannelloni, he wrapped sautéed portobello mushrooms, mozzarella, and a little summer savory in crepes so thin that they turned translucent in the oven. Three cigar-sized cannelloni came with a tomato sauce with the prune-sweet depth of a port, a few significant leaves of basil cast across its surface. If only it weren’t for the mozzarella, egregiously bland — the sauce deserved to be met by a cheese with the same presence. For his lapin à la moutarde, Peterson grilled the loin of a half rabbit and braised the legs. I used every scrap of bread on the table to capture every drop of the reduced braising liquid, softly pungent with mustard and shimmering with fresh tarragon. The mustard marinade on the loin, however, blackened where it touched the grill into unpleasantly bitter stripes.
And at its most reductive, the food doesn’t always impress: A tossed green salad was free of all adornment, including the clear glass bowl it was served in. Its red-wine dressing was equally invisible, leaving only the faintest glisten of oil on the bowl. It was a small, lovely thing, but priced the same as a grilled shrimp and black-bean salad with blood oranges; such austerity left us with a sense of incompletion. When a friend ordered the mushroom cannelloni after the salad, only to find out it came with the same salad on the side, incompletion turned to disappointment. Failing to warn us of the redundancy was one of a couple of puzzling lapses — forgetting to bring our wine was another — in the attention paid us by the server.
The servers otherwise had warmth to spare, and in such a small place, the time to spare it. Olivia hasn’t been open for three months, yet on both trips the servers appeared to greet each new guest who walked in by name. Petersen regularly came out from the kitchen to chat. Near the end of my last meal, a friend and I finally looked up from the plates we’d been ruminating over. The fire was lit. Our host was swapping stories with a customer. “I feel like I’m eating in someone’s house,” Jennifer remarked. It was no insult.