Artists’ Palate

Artists’ PalateArtists’ PalateArtists’ Palate

H idden amidst chain establishments in a plaza on the Boston Post Road, Ola Restaurant sparkles like a jewel.

You could easily miss the small doorway, which opens from the parking lot to a descending staircase. Upon reaching the below-street-level bar and seating area, you feel transported by the music, the colors—blues and oranges splashed on the walls and ceiling—and exotic fragrant scents wafting from the kitchen and bar, including whiffs of fresh mint as it’s muddled into mojitos. It all contributes to the sense of escape that brothers Wagner and Melvin Lopez, along with a remarkably cohesive and talented family, have created in this Nuevo Latino eatery.

“Our restaurant is always in motion,” says Wagner, who manages the front of the house and the bar. “We don’t want customers to get bored, so we are always changing.” Given that approach, the name fits all the more. “Whether you speak Spanish or not, ‘Ola’ sounds very friendly,” says Melvin, the chef. “With the ‘h,’ it means ‘hello,’ and without, it translates to ‘ocean wave.’ Everything we do relates to the sea.”

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Ola is a family voyage. The Lopez brothers’ sister Nancy Aliev makes the desserts and helps conceive the often stunning visual presentations throughout the rest of the menu; their mother Zoila’s paintings adorn the walls (as well as one or two pieces each by Wagner and Melvin, who paint when they can find the time); and cousins and extended family lend a hand on busy weekends.

“Our whole family is sensitive to color and art,” says Melvin. “The first thing you notice on your plate are the colors and how it’s structured, and then hopefully the flavors will follow.”

When he says “hopefully” there, he’s just being modest; the impressive architecture on the plates is not, in my experience, a stand-in for good flavor. My table starts with Ceviche de Camarón, a shrimp dish authentic to Guatemala, where the family hails from. The ceviche involves “cooking” the shrimp not by heating them but by marinating them in acids from oranges, lemons and limes. Melvin adds them to a tomato base with red onion, cilantro and slivers of avocado, all served in a martini glass with long spoons for easy diving and scooping; the effect is surprisingly light.

The Pulled Pork Arepa appetizer special features passion fruit-glazed meat piled atop sweet corn tortillas, with mango “salsita” and pico de gallo making for a fascinating play of sweet and sour flavors. Steamed littleneck clams in shells studded with parsley lay in a line on the Almejas Al Vapor Con Chorizo dish, and a saucer brims with lobster reduction and chorizo. “It’s going to get messy,” Wagner warns us before he pours with a flourish. In fact, it’s a neat way to have your sauce, which we keep adding as we go.

The Black Paella house specialty uses forbidden rice (legend has it that in ancient China black rice was reserved for royalty and forbidden to commoners). Clam shells neatly propped up form a foundation while four oyster shells edge the plate, each one lined with shitake mushrooms and steamed spinach, topped with more of that lobster reduction, this time with a saffron lime twist, for a stark refreshing bite in contrast to the saltiness of the chorizo in the paella.

Next we try the Churrasco, which is inspired by the flavors of Argentina. It’s a strip steak with two chimichurri sauces—one made from lime, horseradish and green parsley, the other from sundried tomato—accompanied by a honey cinnamon sweet potato purée, another interesting union of sweet and sour.

The Salmon Special looks like a bat with blue corn tortilla wings, the body a slab of salmon sitting atop an enchilada stuffed with shrimp, shitake mushrooms, spinach and asparagus, caught in a spider web of sauce featuring black bean laced with dark chocolate.

These are a lot of flavors, but somehow they harmonize. It’s a testament to Melvin’s technique that he can take traditional Latin American ingredients and apply refined techniques from all over the world to make more elaborate meals.

“My mother, in Guatemala, she was always very careful about every detail of our lives, and that reflects in what we do now,” says Wagner. Adds Melvin: “For example, the guacamole, we could buy chips and make it simple. Instead we decided to go complicated, and make the yucca, plaintain and malanga chips ourselves.” Then they dye the chips and tortillas in beet juice to add another splash of color.

“Or the mojito,” adds Wagner. “We could make it very basic with simple syrup, but we try to balance the mint and lime juice, and add fresh fruits, fresh juice and different rums for different flavors.” There are mango, coconut, passion fruit, pineapple and pomegranate varieties, each full of fruit and not too sugary.

Even Ola’s sangria is innovative. Embracing the suggestion of a staff member, they added diced carrots, a surprise in texture for those who love to eat the fruit at the bottom.

It’s a humble metaphor for the subterranean, many-splendored surprise that is Ola.

Ola Restaurant
350 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
Tues-Thurs, Sun 5pm–11pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-12am
(203) 891-0522
www.olarestaurantct.com

Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.

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Jane Rushmore specializes in travel stories and food reviews. She’s published articles on topics across the globe, such as palaces in Thailand, mineral spas in the Czech Republic, and opera festivals in Northern Italy. After brief periods living in London and Australia, she is happy to call New Haven home for the past decade.

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