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Olivia’s surprises with creative dishes, sleek setting

We’d heard that things were changing at the Boulevard Mall, but we didn’t know how much they were changing until we dined at Olivia’s Mexican Restaurant.

Visually, Olivia’s is something we’d expect to see on the Strip or in the ’burbs instead of as part of the resurgence of what has been a down-at-the-heels mall. The blue-and-white exterior, fronting the parking lot near the mall’s cab stand, is sleek and contemporary, which carries over to the interior with its roughly textured stacked white stone (limestone, maybe?) and black accents.

The better-than-its-environment vibe carried over to the food, too. But a few days after we were there, we learned that the opening chef and the owners had parted ways — something that’s not real unusual in a restaurant’s early life, but which can turn out to mean big changes, no changes, or anything in between. Olivia’s already has gone through some rejiggering in its first four months, moving from a self-proclaimed Latin restaurant to a Mexican one, though a few vestiges of the Latin identity remain.

But we hope changes to the food won’t be sweeping, because there was a lot to like on the evening of our visit. That started with the salsa, one of the most complex I’ve had in a long time, with chipotle undertones and brash cilantro contributing to an alchemy that resulted in lots of layers of flavor. With it came chips that tasted as though they’d been fried in-house and that were especially crisp, which we liked.

We knew Olivia’s was different when we were served our starter of pulled beef brisket flautas ($9). The three crisp rolls were not at their heart all that unusual, but their treatment was — drizzled with regular and avocado crema and sprinkled with some cotija cheese, pickled (in-house, we suspect) onions and an avalanche of arugula, its bitter austerity effectively balancing the richness of the beef and cremas.

We figure the chef is/was a fan of arugula because that also played significantly in our chile relleno ($16). From the menu description we knew this wouldn’t be a common chile relleno, and it wasn’t, the only similarity being that it was indeed a poblano pepper, and it was stuffed. In this case, though, the pepper was lightly par-cooked and retained its bright color and crisp-tender texture, and the filling was a mix of cubes of grilled carne asada and roasted potato and slices of wild mushroom, covered with a blanket of melted Oaxacan cheese before being showered with arugula and surrounded by a tomatillo-based sauce. The pepper rested on a bed of the restaurant’s way-above-average cilantro-corn rice.

We knew we’d have to try the garlic shrimp ($15) because I’d been informed by a reader who’d been in awhile back that he was rather surprised to be served head-on shrimp in this familiar dish, as a lot of people would be. The heads were gone, though, the seven plump shrimp optimally cooked and bathed in a super-garlicky butter mixture, which is a good thing. On the side was more cilantro-corn rice and some frijoles that not been squashed and refried; these were whole and just soft enough, a refreshing change.

And a sweet corn tamale ($6), somewhat diminutive, with an appealing sweetness and lots of crisp kernels of corn.

Service was friendly, polite and well-intentioned but scattered, beginning with some apparent confusion about who actually would be serving us and continuing with forgotten drinks and poorly timed courses. This was one area in which Olivia’s didn’t measure up to its more ambitious brethren.

Successful restaurants continually evolve just enough to capitalize on their high points and weed out the low ones. Olivia’s already has done some evolving, and it’ll be interesting to see how the chef change affects it. We just hope the owners are cognizant of both sides of the equation and adjust accordingly.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at www.reviewjournal.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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