Restaurant review: Oliver’s opens with ups and downs

From the July 3, 2014 edition

Keeping track of serial restaurateur Yavonne Sarber’s eateries is harder than remembering where I parked my car after spending a long day and night at ComFest. And it’s just become harder, because Sarber’s done it again. So to her intriguing and never-boring group of de-NOVO, Manifesto and Chez du Bon-turned-Fin, now add Oliver’s Burgers, Steaks & Bourbon.

Inhabiting the Downtown Lynn Alley locations of the former Thai Lotus and Mall Cafe, casual Oliver’s has a masculine look that’s beef-and-bourbon compatible. Long, narrow and warehouse-y, black and brown dominate inside of Oliver’s wood and just-excavated-looking brick walls. There are also retro leatherette booths, a lengthy bar, about a dozen sporty TVs and — rare for a Sarber joint — only one chandelier. Overall, the decor is cool, dark and practically understated, given Sarber’s standards.

Oliver’s three-pronged, testosterone-celebrating subtitle invites investigation, and on my first visit, the place exonerated itself fine on each count. Bourbon-wise, prices dictate you go big, because stellar selections like Angel’s Envy ($10), Eagle Rare single barrel ($9), Knob Creek single barrel reserve ($10) and Four Roses small batch ($8) cost basically as much as ubiquitous old Maker’s Mark ($8).

Bourbon is also delivered via house cocktails and intriguing two-ounce pours infused with everything from fig and vanilla to walnut and tobacco ($10). Among Oliver’s cocktails, the Not Your Daddy’s Manhattan ($12) turned out to be not anyone’s Manhattan. I don’t mean it was bad — I actually liked it — but, aside from bourbon, its chocolate, chili and bacon flavors were hardly Manhattan-y.

When food called, prior to having a cow, I limbered up with a Chopped Salad ($6). In essence a well-executed Greek salad, it corralled fresh romaine lettuce with banana peppers, goat cheese, Kalamata olives and diced cucumbers and tomatoes. The palate-popping ensemble was slightly overdressed in a lively vinaigrette.

Time to cowboy up. Oliver’s advertises a bison burger, a chorizo/beef burger and several “1/3 lb. short rib” burgers garnished with everything from ham and eggs to mac-n-cheese. I tried the Downtown Jucy Lucy burger ($8), inspired by Minneapolis-originating, same-spelled sandwiches famous for having cheese distinctively encased inside the beef. Oliver’s lightly seasoned version was sorta studded with cheddar and gruyere, and intensified by caramelized onions and a chipotle aioli. It was also enticingly seared and, living up to its leaky adjective, quickly liquefied most of its toasted, flaky and puffy bun.

Of the two steaks curiously only available, the eight-ounce Cajun Ribeye ($14) was juicy and nicely charred, just like my burger. It was also underwhelming seasoning-wise, as its “Cajun” spicing tasted only of garlic powder. The steak’s generous accompanying sides were a decent medley of sautéed vegetables (squashes, mushrooms, peppers) and OK sweet potato fries (pass on the better-for-dessert caramel sauce) a bit under-fried.

Actually, the deep fryer and Cajun seasoning weren’t having particularly good evenings. That Jucy Lucy’s tacked-on side of Cajun Chips ($4; burgers are sold a la carte) were thin, flaccid, un-zesty curls tasting of garlic powder and oil. And an appetizer of Seasonal Fried Vegetables ($7) was a reappearance of the squash-mushroom-peppers crew from the rib-eye dinner, only this time, lightly crusted and fried in not-hot-enough fat, and so arrived limp and pooling grease.

My server wasn’t having the best night either. A strong and friendly start was compromised when, after presenting the check, she disappeared for an am-I-getting-punked? long time.

If Oliver’s was launched prematurely, well, it’s still early in its voyage. Perhaps Sarber’s many-restaurants experience can help patch up the leaks in her good-looking new ship. I’ll be back ... stay tuned.

Photos by Meghan Ralston