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Easy Does It 

Not so much original as delightfully prepared, the gourmet-meets-California menu at SWEET OLIVE CAFE keeps it (relatively) light and fresh.

Sweet Olive Cafe exposes one sharp decision after another, starting with Chef Ginny Martin, who opened the breakfast-lunch spot with her husband, Brian Hoskins, after several years of hard labor in high-end restaurants. Her current job is no river cruise -- you can see the blond thirtysomething bent over a cutting board in the wide-open kitchen or carrying lunches through the dining room herself. Even so, the lights at Sweet Olive usually dim just as chefs in nearby kitchens put their potatoes to boil and consider firing up the grill for dinner service.

With help from a front-end loader, the couple gutted the 160-year-old First Renaissance Building, the space Cafe du Monde used to roast its coffee early in the previous century. They replaced decades of dust and stored clutter with a tall and airy front room, where you order, fetch your drinks and admire the leafy green and white T-shirts printed with a graceful sweet olive tree logo. The dining room -- a bright, windowless, courtyard-style space that has the artistic sensibility of an Amsterdam museum cafe -- is situated down a narrow hallway and deep inside the building's solid brick structure. The utter hopelessness of sunlight there is offset by the lush green of plants that never need watering; by tulips and poppies painted in vibrantly colored splotches and framed; and by the quiet gurgling of a garden fountain that spurts water from the canines of a lion's gaping jaw.

While the acoustics in a cavern dictate that even a roomful of whisperers can cause a clamor, Sweet Olive's regular clientele and employees seem to have come to an unspoken agreement not to raise their voices above a gentle burble.

Sweet Olive's menu has a gourmet, sometimes California approach that's rarely seen in New Orleans but longed for by transplants who prefer to save their po-boy consumption for especially indulgent occasions. Sandwiches on multi-grain rolls and whole wheat bread are dressed with housemade condiments like red pepper coulis, avocado-jalapeno puree and ancho chile mayonnaise; salads feature asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, toasted nuts and baby spinach.

Much rarer than finding this style of food in New Orleans is finding it done well. I didn't see any combinations at Sweet Olive that I hadn't seen before, but Martin's food is unusual in that it's both trendy and void of pretensions; it's stylish and down-to-earth.

Yellowfin tuna baked on-site and flaked by hand bears so little resemblance to prepared tuna fish that you begin to question what's really in those cans. When she combines it with all-American mayonnaise, celery, red onion and herbs, however, your tuna salad sandwich tastes exactly how you hoped it would, only better. The Sammy, essentially a Rueben with really good ingredients, includes sauerkraut, spicy Russian dressing and juicy slices of corned beef, which is almost herbal in its fresh, sweet tang.

Nearly everything I ordered seemed designed and prepared with inspiration, which is a fair trade-off for originality. There's a salad, for example, of mixed greens, plump sun-dried cranberries, finely crumbled Gorgonzola, (a little too much) balsamic vinaigrette and cool, rosy slices of duck breast -- a terrific combination that you might see on the pages of any glossy gourmet magazine.

Only parched roast beef served on a dried-out onion bun (The Tchoupitoulas) made an unacceptable sandwich. Likewise, there's a passable selection of croissants, muffins and cookies, but nothing to rescue downtown from its shortage of pastry shops.

Sweet Olive is not a heath food restaurant by any stretch of the waistband. The coffee is too deliciously robust, the orange-spiced iced tea way too caffeinated, and there's a Good Humor freezer near the pastry case near the entrance. But the selection is fresher and more healthful than most of the town's inexpensive lunch options. If you can resist hard Genoa salami, Provolone and smoked ham slicked with sweet Italian-style vinaigrette (sandwich No. 5), you can tailor your lunch to meet a fairly wholesome standard. The house salad, for example, is a toss of greens and raw vegetables with a fluffed head of alfalfa sprouts. Ordered as part of a tuna salad plate, it isn't even dressed.

You don't have to rise with Bob Edwards this summer to catch the first wave of coffees and muffins that scuttle out the door of 610 Tchoupitoulas St. The starting time at Sweet Olive is 9 a.m. during the hottest months, which, unless you're a downtown professional, is a reasonable hour to be turning on lights and hosing down sidewalks and cranking the espresso machine's shrill scream of steam. By 9 a.m., you're better prepared to trade a dime for four minutes on the meter, and you're actually hungry for Ginny Martin's soft and milky scrambled eggs, flecked with black pepper and made into a bagel sandwich with thick-cut bacon and warm Monterey Jack cheese.

Besides, for the chef, who's pregnant for the second time, a few extra minutes' rest before the noon crunch is probably a wise decision. Judging from the myriad ordinary lunch options around town, applying a chef's insight to sandwiches and salads isn't as easy as she makes it look.

click to enlarge SWEET OLIVE CAFE Chef-owner Ginny Martin's preparations are trendy but unpretentious, stylish but down-to-earth. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • SWEET OLIVE CAFE Chef-owner Ginny Martin's preparations are trendy but unpretentious, stylish but down-to-earth.
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