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Shawn Cirkiel Talks Olive & June's Italian Liqueur Program, Small Plates and Learning From Others' Mistakes

Eater Austin first told you about Parkside chef Shawn Cirkiel's new Italian project, Olive & June, back in October when he announced he'd be taking over the El Arbol space in Bryker Woods. Little details spilled out afterward--Southern Italian cooking, no pizza, a private dining room--but we needed to know more. Cirkiel sat down with us recently to get specific about the menu, which he says will be "adventurous," featuring "classics, without it being so dependent on the classic American red sauce."

Cirkiel's maneuvering his existing staff so that much of the kitchen staff and management of both Olive & June and Parkside/Backspace will come from within the family, and says he's particularly excited about their Italian liqueur program, which is "kind of the opposite of a Scotch program." They're aiming to open by February, so things are in place well before SXSW.

So tell us about the concept behind Olive & June.

"We tend to do restaurants that we like to eat at. And that's how we think of food and family and all those things. That’s what Parkside was, there was nowhere to get oysters and just bar food and do something nice if you wanted to, much less do it downtown. And when I mean downtown I mean really downtown. There wasn't a pizza that we wanted when we did the Backspace. We wanted something very specific, warm, inviting and Neapolitan, so that's why we did that. And then now with Olive and June it's kind of the same thing. We want a little bit more than just spaghetti and meatballs. Something a little bit more authentic. Food that we like to cook for ourselves and that we like to eat. That’s what Olive & June is to us. That combination, just like Parkside, of neighborhood and something a little bit more.

And the name's from your grandmothers?

The name came about specifically from two grandmothers. The same kind of history as where Parkside came from. Parkside’s named after the housing projects in the Bronx where my dad grew up and where my grandparents still lived until probably 2000. It was my life, spending time there and visiting. From Arthur Avenue to the Lower East Side to Little Italy. To Carmine’s in the Bronx with the plates that are like this big. That whole culture of all the different parts of it. That’s what I grew up seeing and being a part of. And also growing up here. Olive & June gives us an opportunity. From eating, traveling and cooking, what I expect and what I want to do is very different from what I saw as a kid. I don’t need to do the plate size, the parmigiana, but the theory, the family and friends and Sunday suppers is what I am and what we hope Olive & June is.

How will you be using the space?

On one hand, it’s smaller than Parkside, and it can also be a lot bigger. A lot depends on the weather and some things. We’re actually taking some seats away and reorganizing the space so it makes more sense as a diner. That’s kind of our goal. The inside is 90 seats, which makes it smaller than Parkside. If you add in the outdoor patios, it’s like 160 seats. It has a third floor that was used prior for offices, and they had an outdoor bar. We’re not doing that construction now; we’re actually going to do that in March. We didn’t want to get held up on the opening process of permitting. Which happens, it’s an awesome process. We’re going to turn the whole third floor into a private dining room, similar to Parkside. We’ll be able to do about 45 to 50 inside, and another 80 outside. So just like Parkside, about 100 or 120 seated. We can tent it in the winter; do weddings and Christmas parties, all that good stuff.

Can you give us some menu specifics?

We make all our own pasta in-house. We’re really excited about that. We’ve got a pasta machine and we’ve been playing around. We’re not tired of pasta for family meals every day yet. We’re excited about doing a little more adventurous. Uni and shrimp and kind of some fun, beautiful things as well as some of the classics, without it being so dependent on the classic American red sauce. We’re really excited about it. We’re going to have a great little section of piccolo piatti, these little plates of spiedini with grilled swordfish. Testaroli, which is like crispy bread stacked with ricotta and honey, and pesto, and simple, fun stuff that we can do by the bites.

So you can sit around, have a glass of wine and just snack and eat and enjoy yourself. And we have like six or seven mains, which are simple, off the wood-fired grill. A great big ole Porterhouse, kind of a beefsteak a la Florentine with green salad and lemon. So it’ll be good. Then a whole bunch of contorni which I’m super excited about. With all the vegetables and sides, from cauliflower and escarole and gratin, and just fun stuff.

We joke, we say it, but it’s true. We literally cook what we like to eat, and that’s what makes it fun.

We have to ask: specialty craft cocktails?

Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of the nature of it. One of the big things that we’re going to do there is Italian liqueurs. Everyone’s really excited about it. Everyone’s familiar with Campari and Fernet, but there’s like, another hundred of them that are around that no one uses, so we’re really excited about that. Kind of the opposite of a Scotch program. It’s going to be the bitter Italian program. We were traveling in NY a few weeks ago and literally, that’s all we drank. It was the end, and I was like I just want a glass of champagne, something light. There are some that are so good, and we were eating a lot too, so it worked out.

Design-wise, how's the building going to be adjusted to Olive & June's needs?

Aubrey Carter did the building and Joel Mozersky did the interior, so the space itself has good bones. Like anything, as you have a chance to see it in use and how it functions, you see some of the challenges. Which even in the best designed space, there’s always a challenge or two. Our goal is to kind of manage some of those things from what we learned happened with El Arbol and kind of fix some of those challenges. We’re excited about that. We’re going to enter from the back, from the rear garden, so you feel like you’re in a garden in Italy and coming up through the big tree. It’s just such a beautiful tree. And opening up the dining rooms os they feel more garden like. Open windows and plants and then we have a bunch of flower boxes going up on the railings. So it’ll feel like Europe where you’re looking off and you see geraniums and ivy and ferns coming down everywhere. We’ll lighten all the colors.

You've said that you're going to be using a lot of your existing staff, and keeping things within the family. Is that an Austin thing?

Ironically enough, we’re all good friends in Austin, for the most part. I called everybody and started asking questions on how they did it—like Tyson and Philip on how they went from Uchi to Uchiko. And even though we’ve gone from one to two with Backspace, because they’re so close, it doesn’t really feel, it feels like one and a half. You just literally walk through the door and you’re in the other space. So we asked all these questions. Same with everybody. What were the challenges? So we got to hear first-hand some of the things that they did wrong. And we’re all friend so they’re like, don’t do this, I wouldn’t do this. It was really cool.

What's the best advice you got?

There are so many. It’s like kids; everyone once they have the experience wants to share something about it. Even if you’ve heard it a thousand times, you just kind of nod your head and go yeah. I’ll have to think about that. Not to do it, maybe? Someone told me that. They’re a good friend, so that’s funny.

When do you plan to open?

We hopefully will be ready at the end of January, but probably it’ll be closer to February. Which is like Parkside. Parkside opened the week before Valentine’s. Go figure. The goal is to try to beat SXSW. Because we come back down here and it’s so overwhelming, we get over a thousand people a day. It’s awesome, but it’s three, four times as busy for us. So it’s a lot. That’s the goal.

· All Olive & June Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All Shawn Cirkiel Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]

Former El Arbol, future Olive & June. [Photo: El Arbol/Facebook]


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Olive & June

3411 Glenview Avenue, Austin, TX