By Angela Lehman

"This is a place to hang out, relax and enjoy good food," Josh Novak, owner-chef of The Hollar, says. And it would appear Novak has hit it just right. His new restaurant in Madrid teams Southern-style cooking with New Mexico's relaxed, friendly vibes.

Novak converted a previous eatery, located at the southern end of Madrid's eclectic main drag on Highway 14 (opposite The Mine Shaft Tavern), into a comfy, laid-back space that now consists of a single room that can serve approximately 28 diners at well-spaced, minimal gray tables and comfortable brown leatherish seating. On the walls, large, contemporary unframed oils by local artist James Hayes provide all the color.

But The Hollar is not really about the décor—it's about the food. Novak, a Cordon Bleu graduate, has a miraculously concise menu filled with items diners actually enjoy eating.

When asked what the most popular items are among the diverse clientele—Harley enthusiasts to local intellectuals—manager Andrew Wice replies, "the prosciutto cheeseburger, the crispy chicken and the braised pork."

After trying them out, I understand why. Chef Novak puts his own twist on Southern cuisine. Nothing deep-fried, no greasy gravies—the food here simply uses the best aspects of a regional style of cooking that combines flavor and texture with eye appeal.

For starters, my dining companions and I shared the fried green tomatoes coated with cornmeal crust and topped with lavender flavored béchamel sauce and a totally delicious bruschetta: chopped tomatoes with olives, onions, lemon and feta cheese served with crisp focaccia toasts for scooping (both $6).

For entrées, we sampled the yummy crispy chicken breast ($14, with a cornmeal crust that sits on a bed of cheesy grits, accompanied by baby asparagus tips and carrots. We also tried the braised pork tenderloin ($14), which comes over creamy mashed potatoes and the same vegetables—the vegetables, which are farmed locally, change according to availability. The pork was so tender (eight hours in the oven) and delicious it could have been consumed happily by any toothless diner. Seared scallops served with crispy corn fritters have a garnish of the lavender flavored béchamel sauce and present a perfect combination of textures ($17). The portions were very generous and the food was not overly salted—a heavy handed device often found around this area. We did not try the cheeseburger ($10), leaving it for a lunchtime visit when the warmer weather will allow eating on the 20-seat outdoor terrace, perfect for people watching.

Novak and his small team started an operation called Baked in Madrid to provide their own breads and, soon, desserts. The fresh corn bread we enjoyed was one of the venture's first products, as was the dessert of chocolate chip, cream cheese brownie. Desserts range from $3.50 to $4.

The Hollar has eight interesting beer selections ($3.50 to $5). Glasses of wine come in four varieties, two red and two white and are only $5 to $8 a glass and $18 to $28 a bottle—sensible pricing for sensible wines. Local water is infused with cucumbers for an interesting and refreshing treat.

The same menu is served for lunch with a few extra items such as a shrimp po' boy ($8), a pork biscuit ($9), three varieties of subs ($7), with more seasonal items to come. The Sunday brunch menu changes each week with dishes such as potato pancakes ($7) or steak and eggs ($15), and there is live music on Saturdays and Sundays.

Intelligent, knowledgeable service by local and published author Andrew Wice—his haiku framed on the wall—is supplemented by a friendly team that ensures customers feel right at home.

OK—want to know what a hollar is? It's a colloquial Southern term for a small, shallow valley or literally—a hollow. Which is exactly how the land lies, right here in Madrid.

The Hollar
Open 11 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 11 am-3 pm Sunday
2849 Hwy. 14