When guests visit for days, I often take them for a jaunt to New Haven. It’s about a half-hour drive from Fairfield, and offers the Yale University Art Galleries. New Haven also has great restaurants. I’m adding another to my list. The owners of Olea, a Spanish-Mediterranean restaurant, invited me to experience the chef’s tasting menu.
Olea has a calming, contemporary atmosphere, that looks upscale, but soon transformed into a buzz. In the site of the former Ibiza, Olea shares a heritage with that acclaimed Spanish restaurant; the new chef/co-owner is the former chef of Ibiza, and worked at Meigas and Meson Galicia in Norwalk with chef Luis Bollo, when it was the best Spanish restaurant in the Northeast.
Olea is now assuming that mantle. The Mediterranean food reveals classic technique, with fun molecular gastronomy touches of foams and soils, bound in a love of craft and of cooking for restaurant guests.
The meal began with a sampling of three tapas on a rectangular plate. A clear glass of pureed orange-hued gazpacho balanced sweetness and acidity (a quality in many of the dishes to follow). A codfish croquette rested in a drop of aoli. The crisp exterior gave way to a soft, creamy blend of fish and béchamel. A tiny toast, fresh silvery marinated anchovy perched on pureed avocado and cilantro. Crunch, soft, fresh, rich avocado, and briny sea.
The first course was topped with “air” — Aji Amarillo air. The chef transformed the yellow Peruvian pepper into a foamy essence of sweet heat. Mexican-style ceviche, in sweet, tomato sauce, was flecked with precise pieces of mango and red onion, among tender shrimp, little scallops, a slice of octopus, and a mussel.
The second dish spread a series of textures across the plate: rich, moist duck confit and strands of duck prosciutto, against juicy, pickled beets, whisper thin rounds of peppery radish, and crisp plantain chips, gently lassoed by balsamic vinaigrette.
Next, Mediterranean sea bass.
The filet balanced on green snow peas and rounds of rich soft sweet potato, topped with earthy micro greens and Kalamata olive “soil.”
The final course, suckling pig, rolled in crisp skin, on a mini potato gratin, enriched with cream and parmesan, topped with brunoised Granny Smith apples.
Romero is that rare chef who excels at both savory and desserts, and the dessert menu is tempting with housemade ice creams like honey-rosemary and passion fruit, and multi-part desserts like the Sweet Forest, pistachio sponge cake, lime meringue, grapefruit and coconut ice cream.
After the chef’s menu, however, we needed a light dessert. A bowl of fruit that treated each piece like a jewel, mandolin thin apple and a slice of coconut, pared strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, kiwi, orange supreme, in a puddle of tropical coconut sauce. On the side of the plate, croutons of orange cake, and dried coconut.
Given the level of creativity, cooking, and service, Olea is reasonably priced. The chef’s menu is $66 (with $35 for wine pairing). A summer three-course meal is $34. Olea also offers a range of experiences, tapas at the bar, where the bartender is likely to suggest his newest concoction, and shake up an icy, smoky mescal- cucumber martini. A diaphanous serpentine curtain sections off part of the room for group dining.
The restaurant partners are about to open a second restaurant, Kala, in North Haven next month. In the meantime, I’m stopping into Olea for the Sweet Forest dessert.
Olea 39 High Street, New Haven, (203) 780-8925