On Saturday, January 14 the space that formerly held Cafe Marmotte reopened as Restaurant Olivia. It was an unusual transition. The team — consisting of Mizuna veterans and Bistro Georgette owners Austin Carson, Heather Morrison and Ty Leon — took the reigns at Marmotte, keeping the original name and continuing to serve French food from late September until the end of the year. Chef Leon put his own spin on things, revitalizing the menu without making too much noise about the takeover. For three solid months, the group eased into the space, gracefully reopening as the Italian concept they had been developing since they departed from Mizuna in 2018.
Restaurant Olivia has opened to immediate and well-deserved acclaim. The intimate 35-seat interior epitomizes the family restaurant — and not just because it’s named after Morrison’s daughter. Wine buyer Rocco McKeel, who is often on hand personally assisting guests with pairings and culinary director Kayla Saerz — who additionally manages Bistro Georgette — both came from Mizuna. The highly-cultivated hospitality and seamless orchestration that underpins every step of the dining experience are a clear result of a synergy built on years of mutual admiration and a unified desire to run the kind of establishment Olivia is quickly proving to be. While a sophisticated wait-staff keeps things running smoothly, Leon can be found hand-delivering dishes, with Carson individually presenting his inventive drinks whenever time allows.
Olivia’s graceful launch as a pasta-focused Italian joint has never been entirely direct. Pasta was always at the core of the concept, but framing it around Italian cuisine developed gradually. The small menu is still nearly half noodles, with a page of exceptional appetizers and a mere three main courses framing Leon’s handspun creations. Prior to opening, Leon spent three months staging at three acclaimed restaurants across the country — carefully selecting the venue to learn specific aspects that he believed would be helpful for running Olivia. In April 2019 he spent a month at Le Pigeon in Portland. “I have their cookbook, I’ve always wanted to go,” beamed the chef. July took him to Lilia in Brooklyn, where the pasta-focused menu and woodfire grill attract an endless array of customers. “They have a half-hour wait out the door and I wanted to find out why,” continued Leon. Finally, August brought him back across the country to Flour + Water in San Francisco — known for its pasta tasting menus — where the chef learned exactly what it takes to make a pasta restaurant survive.
The menu certainly draws on Italy for inspiration, but the items are more a reflection of Leon’s culinary ingenuity than any particular region. The seared foie gras ($24) is an adaptation of a plate the chef has been toying with since his days at Mizuna. The new and improved dish comes with Morrison’s banana bread, foie gras and Madeira gelato and bacon and Madeira jus. A similar dish appeared on Marmotte’s menu, with this one further perfecting the depraved prototype. The French onion arancini ($16) is another dish that flirts with tradition, adding unique flourishes without being ostentatious. Crispy arancini filled with gruyere bathe in a French onion bisque, arugula daintily adding a hint of its unique spice. The gnocchi ($22) is ricotta and parmesan dumplings topped with romanesco pesto, walnut and fontina fondue. “Our warcry was to be unique and approachable,” said Carson. The whole team has been successful in walking the narrow path where innovation and quality intersect — creating durable delight rather than novelty.
While staying for dinner is highly recommended, stopping in for one of Carson’s cocktails is reason enough to go. The house cocktails are all inventive concoctions that once again speak more to the bartender’s own creativity than to any regional affiliation, but all manage to pair nicely with the menu. The negroni section — featuring a classic, relatives and the house riffs — is the biggest nod to Italy on the drink menu. The Caprese negroni ($12) involves tomato, basil and aged balsamic and proves that despite the omnipresence of mixologists that there are still a few cocktail stones left unturned. The old fashioned ($12) with peanut-butter washed bourbon, PX sherry and banana-walnut bitters is another expression of Carson’s hooch wizardry.
To call Restaurant Olivia a labor of love hardly scratches the surface. Leon, Carson and Morrison all seem to live and breathe the place — devotion and inspiration swirl amongst the smells that waft from Leon’s small kitchen. While the cuisine is reason enough to go, the palpable refinement and geniality give Olivia everything it takes to create a legion of lifelong devotees.
Restaurant Olivia is located at 290 South Downing St., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Thursday and Sunday 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., and
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.