Every day at work is a party for Vicki Newsum Hall, owner of the newly opened Evelyn and Olive Restaurant and Wine Bar on Madison.
Well, maybe not quite. But it was Vicki's love of entertaining and dinner parties that led her to finally open a restaurant with her husband, Ernest Hall. The two, who met in Brooklyn, New York, were known among their friends for entertaining and cooking feasts for 20 or more guests.
"People started to ask, 'When are you going to have a party again?'" Vicki says.
Although she had been working in restaurants since the 1980s (including a stint at Paulette's in Memphis), she first got the idea of opening a restaurant about 10 years ago. Then, when her mother passed away in the early 2000s, she started returning from her home in Brooklyn to Memphis, looking seriously at properties for a restaurant.
"We're pretty green at this," Vicki says, "but we always loved food and loved entertaining people."
The menu is a mix of Jamaican cuisine and Southern classics. Ernest is a native of Kingston, Jamaica, so most of the recipes begin with him. Vicki has helped transform many of the dishes into Evelyn and Olive originals.
Vicki and Ernest have brought on Xena Lovelady (yes, that is her real name). She first started cooking with her grandmother in Alabama. By age 14, she had her first restaurant job. Since then, she's moved up the ranks, from server and hostess to line chef and now kitchen manager.
"We try to stick to authentic Jamaican as much as possible," Lovelady says, "but we add some Southern influences, too. And I also have some liberty to come up with my own stuff."
Standout menu items include a delightfully spiced Kingston cabbage with sweet peppers and Caribbean spices. Jamaican jerk wings are a given, grilled and served with rice and peas and a cooling cucumber and tomato salad. Salmon cakes, served with Delta Grind grits, are topped with the restaurant's signature "boom sauce," a kind of spicy rémoulade that also tops their Angus beef burger.
The Kingston stew fish is perhaps their most representative entrée, with pan-seared tilapia in Jamaican spices, pimiento, country pepper, scallions, and a bed of rice and peas. Key lime pie and bread pudding round out the dessert menu, and you can also get sorrel, a traditional Jamaican beverage made of hibiscus, fresh ginger, and spices.
Evelyn and Olive is still going through its "soft opening" phase. The menu is small, but as Vicki explains, "We just wanted to do what we knew we could do and what would be exciting and different for Memphis."
Authentic Jamaican food is certainly a niche that stands to be filled in Memphis, and that's what Evelyn and Olive plans to stick to. Lovelady is working out a menu of nightly specials, including vegan soups and entrées for a "Meatless Monday." While it could be a few weeks before Evelyn and Olive offers bells and whistles like chef specials and cocktails, for now they have the staple foods down pat and invite you to come in for lunch or dinner, Monday through Friday, and dinner on Saturday.
Lovelady says they will not be closing between lunch and dinner to give diners a chance to eat a later lunch than they might be able to at other restaurants.
"We'll be here anyway," she says. "We figured, why not stay open?"
Evelyn and Olive, 630 Madison (748-5422)