At first the food at Little Ollie's tasted bland.
By my second meal there, though, I started noticing a few flavors, albeit unfamiliar ones. Wait. Was that what broccoli tastes like? Was that what snow peas taste like? Ahhhhh. This was fresh food cooked true Chinese style, without the Americanized sticky-sweet-and-sour sauce, without the excess of oil, without the ubiquitous dusting of red-pepper flakes. And especially without the candy coating that kills so much Chinese-American cooking.
Which is why Little Ollie's way of doing things won't go over well with everyone. By now, American eaters are conditioned to recognize pu pu platters and sesame chicken as "real" Chinese food. But to that, Ollie's owner Typing "Charlie" Huang says mu shu, schmu shu.
"When I came here, when I was nineteen--that was fifteen years ago--I worked in some good New York Chinese restaurants and some bad ones," Huang says. "I tell you, many very poor Chinese people come to the United States to live, and they have no money, and they serve food that is not fresh and that is not authentic, but they do this because that's what American people have shown that they want. But I want to show American people that what they want is not really Chinese food at all. That's junk food cooked by people with low education and no training. I want to encourage people to understand the variety, the culture of good Chinese food, and to see it for the healthy food that it is."
Huang, who grew up near Shanghai, initially started encouraging the residents of Aspen, where he opened the first Little Ollie's three years ago. Even the name of his place bucked tradition. "There are enough China Garden Dragon Jade Palaces out there," he says. "This is not a cheesy restaurant." After Ollie's took off in Aspen, he began looking around for other markets, non-cheesy areas that seemed particularly lacking in healthful, simple, bona fide Chinese cuisine.
His search soon led him to Cherry Creek North. Taking over the space recently abandoned by the Bread Garden, Huang redecorated it without resorting to the usual red walls and gilded, fire-breathing dragons. Instead he filled the room with warm bamboo colors, huge live plants and a partially exposed kitchen, which makes for some fun wok-watching.
Three chefs, each specializing in a different type of cooking (Cantonese, Hunan/Szechuan and Mandarin), man Ollie's woks, creating any dishes they want--so long as they fit in with Huang's philosophy of using whatever's fresh that day and using as little oil as possible.
As a result, this is healthy food for healthy appetites. Forget the old joke about being hungry an hour after eating Chinese: Ollie's meals satisfy the appetite longer, largely because they aren't hampered by slick sauces that provide initially filling fat but no lasting nutrition. Of course, when you're health-conscious, it's hard to go wrong with bamboo-steamed mixed vegetables with tofu ($7.95), especially since Ollie's assemblage of carrots, broccoli, celery, baby corn, straw mushrooms, snow peas, bean sprouts and soft tofu had been steamed perfectly: not too hard, but not squishy, either. And although the sauce was so light it was almost vapor, the sheer, garlic-scented liquid came on the side.
Even the heavier black-bean sauce on Ollie's sea bass ($12.95), while thicker than the usual overly salty fermented bean juice, had a lightweight quality, boosted by plenty of garlic and star anise. The fresh, fresh fish had been cut into pieces and swam with a variety of equally fresh vegetables. More veggies arrived in the seafood nest ($13.95), a mishmash of shrimp, scallops, sea bass and salmon in a sauce of soy and unusually creamy hoisin that was more reminiscent of the spicier che hau than the sugary soybean sauce found in most Chinese restaurants.
But Ollie's also features a few traditional Chinese-American dishes (which means, of course, that they are not traditional Chinese dishes). "I have to offer some of these, because the customer wants," Huang says. "But we don't do them the same way." True. For instance, although his kitchen offers a variation on crab won tons--those goofy bundles full of cream cheese that epitomize the Americanization of Chinese food (you'd be hard-pressed to find cheese in Asian cooking)--Ollie's crab rangoons ($3.95) mixed Chinese chives in with the cheese and came with a classy, semi-sweet ginger sauce for dipping. The Chinese dumplings ($3.95) also were above-average, filled with seasoned ground pork and beef and exuding a minimum of watery discharge. And the spring rolls ($1.50 each) obviously had been plunged into clean, high-quality oil at the right temperature, since they were as oil-free as something deep-fried can be; their innards were a mix of ground meats, shrimp and still-crunchy vegetables rather than the standard slimy cabbage.
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Not all of Ollie's dishes made the transition from wholesome to transcendent: The Yushan beef ($6.50 at lunch) was billed as "hot & spicy," but the beef with vegetables in tasteless gravy was far from either. Otherwise, though, the rest of our lunch was a hit. An order of Hong Kong steak ($12.95) brought strips of lean meat soaked in a ginger-heavy beef-broth reduction; Ollie's shrimp ($12.95) had been stir-fried in a milder ginger sauce and ringed with shards of al dente bok choy. Better still was the crispy duck ($11.95)--less fatty than other bacon-like versions but still tasty. And while the thin batter on the crispy sea bass ($18.95) made it look like a creature from the Cherry Creek lagoon in the final stages of decomposition, the fish tasted fabulous.
Ollie's dishes differ from typical Chinese-American fare not just in taste; they're more expensive, too (at least the portions are still of sharing size). Has Huang upped the ante because his place is in Cherry Creek? Sure. But since he's also upped the flavor ante, I don't mind. And Huang's charming over-enthusiasm fits in just fine in this neighborhood.
He's even willing to let his chefs make just about any dish a diner desires. So if you must have your sweet-and-sour pork, go ahead. But don't expect it to taste like a lollipop.
Little Ollie's, 2364 East Third Avenue, 316-8888. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.