Olea - New Haven, CT

Dinner is Served

When Ibiza, the popular high-end Spanish restaurant on High Street, closed up shop a few years back, its head chef Manuel Romero saw an opportunity to start fresh in the same space. Under the name Olea, he and his business partner Maria Gonzalez have retained their predecessor’s prestige—as well as its elegant curving bar and recessed lighting—but expanded upon its culinary palette, stretching from Spain to the Mediterranean, North Africa to South America.

Romero explains the broader map of influences as a kind of chef’s infidelity. “It’s very tough nowadays to stick with one thing,” he says. “There are so many ingredients from other places that have nothing to do with… Spanish cuisine. As long as it’s a good product, I want to use it.”

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He seems in general to be a man of few words, but his food, only served at dinnertime, does more than speak for him; it sings. I had the Chef’s Tasting Menu ($65 per person), which began with a trio of savory nibbles: a fresh anchovy on a creamy and tart avocado puree; two thin slices of marbled acorn Iberico ham, nutty and rich; and what Romero playfully calls a “cappuccino”—a silky mushroom veloute topped with a Manchego foam and sprinkled with Iberico ham dust. For this diner, who has a healthy suspicion of foam on a dinner plate, the latter was more than convincing, the airy presentation of the cheese adding to a lovely gradation of flavors.

Next came a ceviche, made Mexican-style with a tomato broth. Chilled scallops, shrimp, octopus and mussels mingled with zingy mango, lime and cilantro. Foam returned, this time as a spicy hat atop the dish. Suddenly a convert, I found the sensation of eating fresh seafood garnished by a little sea froth delightful.

The next dishes were heartier fare. A crispy-skinned branzino fillet served over sweet potatoes, snap peas and shallots was accented with a fun sprinkling of “black olive soil”: dried kalamata olives blended small enough to resemble dirt. An oxtail croquette was flanked by crunchy fried brussel sprout leaves and topped with a little crown of whole-grain mustard. The croquettes, I’m told, are a customer favorite at Olea, and it’s not hard to see why. Fried to a delicate crisp on the outside, with a creamy mix of tender oxtail and earthy mushrooms on the inside, it was comfort food at its finest, a midwestern casserole turned sophisticated expat.

If there was a standout dish among so many excellent options, it was the duck breast that followed. Glazed with a sweet maple and apple gastrique, the duck was perfectly seared and studded with flaky salt and lavender buds, which added a bitter floral note to the rich meat. It was accompanied by a festive curl of green apple, a shard of charred fennel and a pudding-soft baked carrot, all skating across a buttery parsnip puree.

After nearly two hours and plenty of exclamations, dessert arrived in the form of cannoli-misu, the deconstructed, recombined child of cannoli and tiramisu. Garnished with purple orchids, the dish was an explosion. Crisp pastry tubes filled with rich cream were surrounded by powdered swoops of cocoa, ladyfinger dust and crumbled chocolate. Dollops of coffee sauce dotted the perimeter, and garnet squares of coffee gelatin quivered amid all the excitement. It was fancy, delicious, even bordering on hysterical—the kind of dessert in which a rom-com heartthrob might hide an engagement ring.

And in which a real-life companion might actually want to find it.

39 High St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 5-9:30pm; Fri-Sat 5-10pm
(203) 780-8925

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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