by Elissa Karg
Perhaps I eat out too often, but it was a treat on a weeknight to sit down to artichoke-stuffed chicken breast, baked spinach and three-cheese macaroni, right at my own kitchen table. And there were no complaints about dinner that night from our very fussy eater.
A weeknight dinner is exactly what chef and owner Kelli Lewton envisions when she plans her menus at this tiny take-out just north of Birmingham’s downtown. “It’s what you’d eat on a Tuesday night,” she says.
Step inside Aunt Olive’s and you’ll be overwhelmed by the densely packed shelves and the stuffed refrigerated cases. It explains why, when I called to get a picture of what I might have for dinner, the person who answered the phone said they had “everything.”
You can buy wine and beer, all kinds of high-end munchies, brightly iced cookies in the shape of VW Beetles, gourmet coffee, freshly baked bread and pies. One wall is reserved for deep thoughts about food: “A man taking basil from a woman will love her always.”
The open kitchen gave me a glimpse of Chef Lewton, a long blond braid down her back, up to her elbows in pasta. There was a tray of freebies — I enjoyed more than my fair share of a yummy avocado and black-bean dip. At the smoothie bar fresh fruit drinks are whipped up with Columbo fat-free yogurt. I brought home a peach smoothie which was a big hit.
For lunch, there are many sandwiches to chose from, priced from $5-$7.50. We tried corned beef, which is made with the traditional coleslaw and Russian dressing on a wonderful rye bread that was lightly grilled. The chicken Caesar panini includes thinly sliced chicken breast with Caesar dressing and grated Parmesan cheese.
Michigan salad was sprinkled generously with dried cherries, crumbled blue cheese and a raspberry vinaigrette. Crispy veggie chips — like potato chips, but made with carrots, yams and green beans — were a nice touch in the house salad.
We also liked the hearty seafood cakes, which come with a dill sauce. Eggplant rotini is thinly sliced eggplant, wrapped around pasta — one of ours came with pesto and another in a tomato sauce.
Sides include a wonderful three-cheese macaroni, made from scratch (scratch is the rule, not the exception, at Aunt Olive’s). There is a risotto of the day, mashed potatoes, sage stuffing and more. You can make a meal of four sides for $7.
If you want to bring dinner home for the whole family, and eat like a family, there are four prearranged choices including roasted chicken, meatloaf and giant meatballs (“from outer space,” says the menu) and pasta, along with sides, salads, and bread for $17-$22, serving up to four.
Desserts are mostly made at Lewton’s catering business, 2 Unique. There are inexpensive bars for $1.75. The brownie-cheesecake is strongly recommended. I also liked the little mud pie, which has a deep chocolate flavor ($3.50).
One thing that makes Aunt Olive’s appealing for dinner on a Tuesday or anytime is Chef Lewton’s eye for healthful eating. “Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh,” she says. “And as close to the vine as possible.” She calls herself a “new-generation chef” and her philosophy is “green food.” When available, she uses organic meat and cheeses, and “I never use butter if olive oil will do.”
Aunt Olive, in case you are wondering, was Lewton’s childhood introduction to good food. “Funky” is how Lewton remembers her. Her Finnish family was headquartered in Michigan’s copper country, where Lewton spent her summers. “She was one of those crazy aunts,” Lewton says. “I would make pancakes with her, I’d be on a milk crate so I could reach the stove, and she’d be smoking a long brown cigarette. She had a big passion for living and she was a really good cook, she made awesome food.” Long live Aunt Olive.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.