Sherry-focused Oloroso shows off chef Tod Wentz’s range and attention to detail.
Back in 2014, Chef Tod Wentz helped fuel Philadelphia’s fine-dining renaissance when he opened his namesake restaurant in a cozy converted townhouse on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly.
Wentz built sailboats and studied analytical chemistry before becoming a chef, and he put his full skill set to use at Townsend, where he helped stain and reupholster the furniture, refinish the floors, and construct the bar. He also crafted an ambitious, French-inspired menu that has consistently landed Townsend near the top of any credible list of Philadelphia’s best restaurants. (It also nabbed him a semifinalist nod for the James Beard Foundation’s best new restaurant award.)
Now Wentz is bringing the same hands-on approach to Oloroso, his superb new sherry-focused Spanish restaurant on Walnut Street in Midtown Village.
“I did the design and the custom build-out with my 74-year-old father and my assistant manager, JP Custodio,” says Wentz, a New Jersey native, when asked about Oloroso’s evocative, umber-toned dining space. “We built a walk-in mahogany wine cellar that holds 1,000 bottles, and installed a Honduran mahogany bar top—made by a couple brothers in South Jersey—to warm up the space.”
He talks proudly, not boastingly, about the Persian carpets he tracked down and used to upholster the banquets. He also makes a point of mentioning (and raving about) all the talented people who helped him bring the place together. There’s the local potter — Heather Ossandon of Heos Ceramics — who designed the cazuelas and dishes, and Wentz’s friend Bill Strobel — “an incredible muralist” — who covered a 35-foot stretch of wall with a Medieval conquest scene.
“Having so many talented people work on and support the restaurant . . . it’s been an intensely personal project for me,” Wentz says, rather unnecessarily, because his devotion to the place and the people who worked on it is raw and right up at the surface for anyone to see.
But you really feel Wentz’s excitement build when he starts discussing his menu, which is a mix of tapas, paellas, and fire-licked entrees that could be described as elevated-rustic. “A Spanish influence — mostly from the Basque region — has been a part of my cooking for a long time,” he says. “I had been looking for the right location for years, and I was thrilled to get a space with a wood-burning oven and grill.”
He talks about cooking in “a more elemental way,” and he’s ready with examples: “Slowly smoking or roasting large cuts of meat over wood, or simply grilling our peppers and vegetables a la plancha.”
There’s the small plate of tripe and roasted peppers, served with pimentón-egg toast, that Wentz says he’s been “trying to find a home for” for seven years. And then there’s the brined and slow-roasted half pig’s head for two. (If you’ve ever wondered how hard it is to procure a quality pig’s head—of course you have—Wentz says he tried multiple suppliers before finally finding consistent quality from Pat LaFrieda.)
There is also Oloroso’s wine and beverage program, designed by superstar somm Gordana Kostovski. At its heart is a diverse collection of sherries — from light-and-flinty manzanillas to bold, fragrant olorosos. “We wanted to feature a variety of distinct sherry houses, and I was very pleased to find bodegas that offered quality and a sense of place,” says Kostovski, who is also Oloroso’s general manager.
Like Wentz (who happens to be her husband), Kostovski’s passion for the restaurant is obvious — and infectious. Even if you’re not familiar with sherry, which is a fortified Spanish wine, Kostovski will turn you into a fan. “Sherry is such an integral part of Spanish culture, and where it's produced, in the Jerez region, has such a unique terroir,” she says. “Whether savory or sweet, it’s so versatile and food friendly, and it’s our goal to expose more people to it and be a home to those who want to enjoy it.” Her wine list is also considered and adventurous; Oloroso is a place for both eaters and drinkers to broaden their gustatory horizons.
Talking about how the restaurant came together, Wentz says, “As a team, we try to be self-sufficient and do as much as we can in house — from the hard work of building the restaurant, to growing into the space and developing the food, to supporting each other in our careers.”
“Now comes the fun part,” he adds, “sharing it with guests.”