Nopa Kitchen + Bar seemed to be humming along in busy Penn Quarter. What prompted its owner to close it after five years and relaunch the modern American restaurant as the Mediterranean-themed Olivia? “People are eating differently, I’m eating differently,” says Ashok Bajaj, who was further encouraged by the success of his modern Middle Eastern Sababa in Cleveland Park.
The change looks good. Whitewashed brick walls now serve as backdrops for 70 pieces of new art and the assorted dining rooms (including several of the best private spaces in town) feel fresh with greenery, actual and faux. Glass wine jugs, suspended in nets, draw eyes upward. The splashiest seats in the house, its name chosen to underscore the role of olives throughout the Mediterranean, may be the banquettes covered in vivid Hermes palm tree prints. (Ask for tables 33, 34, 48 or 49.)
The switch tastes good, too, with some of the prize dishes playing up vegetables. Matt Kuhn, the executive chef at Nopa, calls the change of brands “a comfortable transition” made easier by a 12-day trip to Spain last summer and the fact he got to audition a few ideas at the retired restaurant en route to opening Olivia. Nopa fans might recognize, for instance, the octopus carpaccio on the menu, a cool maritime mosaic ignited with Fresno chiles, dots of peri-peri aioli and pickled potatoes. Carrot hummus dressed with carrot “pearls” and thinned with carrot juice is runny to my taste. A better meatless impression is chickpea ravioli filled with hummus and centered on a moat of liquid pecorino and “Bolognese” coaxed from chopped mushrooms.
One of Morocco’s great gifts to the world is bisteeya: poultry (sometimes pigeon) bound with nuts in phyllo and served with a powdered-sugar topping. Kuhn says his rendition is Olivia’s runaway seller and it’s easy to see why, biting into layers of flaky pastry containing pistachios, egg and ground chicken thighs braised in green harissa.
The only dish that left companions and me puzzled was a braised lamb preparation whose texture brought to mind chicken-fried steak (and no, none of us had taken advantage of any D.C. cannabis privileges). But the sea is well represented by steamed Manila clams in a broth of mint and potatoes that leads to repeat bread mopping, and cod draped in a loose cover of ground chorizo, herbs and lemon zest — a perfect winter pick-me-up and yet another plate in support of Olivia.
800 F St. NW. 202-347-4667. oliviawdc.com. Entrees, $20 to $28.