Restaurant Review: Ola Spices Bridgeport With Nuevo Latino
Ola's tierra: grilled skirt steak atop lobster-coconut-maduros-scallion rice with sun-dried tomatoes and salsa.
All images by Jeff Kaufman
★★ [Very Good]
While big league chefs specializing in Nuevo Latino cuisine duke it out for a world championship, Ola reminds us how pleasant and delicious a modest neighborhood restaurant can be. I’m talking about the new Ola in Bridgeport, a recent offspring of Ola in Orange about which I have been hearing good things for years—seven to be precise. The first thing that strikes me is how pretty the new place is. The aqua, yellow, orange and green color scheme in the dining room evokes tropical seas, sunlight, juicy mangos and margaritas with lime. In the bar whimsical fake palm trees and a dreamy mural of thatched-roof cabanas are as beguiling as an ocean view. We’ve got to smile. We’re on vacation!
We sip mango mojitos. A waiter muddles our guacamole tableside in a molcajete, a modern version of a stone mortar and pestle dating back to the Aztecs. With perfectly ripe avocado, tomato, onion and lots of cilantro, it’s smooth and refreshing. The menu offers guacamole “spicy on request.” We like the freshness and buttery richness of this more subtle guacamole just fine. But spicy is okay with Ola’s co-owner, René Lemus, because he likes to give his customers what they want and he knows that many of them equate Nuevo Latino with incendiary dishes fired up with chili peppers and jalapeño. (Left,
Paella De Mariscos.)
Mr. Lemus, himself a chef, comes from Guatemala, and many of the most popular dishes on his menu are inspired by the home cooking he grew up on. So now, as we casually dip into a bowl of chips, why are we surprised that they’re house-made? Of course, they are. And there are three kinds: corn, plantain and yuca—differing in color, texture and flavor, all equally up to frequent dipping in guacamole, spicy or mild.
Tapas and appetizers include velvety black bean soup, among the best I’ve tasted, served in a shallow plate with islands of queso fresco floating on top. Alas, it arrives lukewarm. It happens—and is easy to fix and easy to overlook when what’s listed as a simple shrimp ceviche sails in looking like a gorgeous exotic bird perched on an oversized cocktail glass. Tender-crisp shrimp, lime, tomato, red onion, avocado and cilantro nestle in the bottom of the glass while feather-light tortilla chips, ribbon-thin, emulate wings. Hey, there’s an artist in the kitchen.
Vegetarians will have a ball at Ola and Ed chooses to go that route, starting with huaraches—the food, not the sandals—in this instance crispy masa with caramelized onions, roasted wild mushrooms, charred tomato, goat cheese and fig vinaigrette. Luscious ingredients, brilliant combination. Carnivore alert: A couple of bites might persuade you to convert.
For his entrée Ed chooses escalivada, a dish with Spanish roots. Traditionally made with eggplant and peppers, it takes its name from a Catalan verb meaning “to roast in embers.”
There’s hardly a restaurant or bar in rural Catalonia that doesn’t serve some version of escalivada. Ola’s rendition is gloriously elaborate, involving asparagus, bell peppers, red onions, eggplant, zucchini, quinoa, corn, thyme, fresh mint, parsley and garlic. Obviously this dish could be made with fewer ingredients, but Ola doesn’t stint. Thick slices of fresh avocado generously decorate even simple dishes like bean soup and yellowfin tuna tacos. (Above, Ceviche De Camaron.)
Platos are plenteous, too. Guava-glazed barbecued baby-back ribs, so rich and tender they tempt cliché and melt in the mouth, come with a heap of yuca fries and a good-sized roasted bell pepper and corn salad. Paella de mariscos, often made with too much rice and too few shellfish, is a seafood lover’s delight. Mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp, tilapia, corn and chorizo, all fresh and perfectly cooked, keep company with just enough rice to soak up a rich broth made with roasted garlic, braised tomato and a touch of saffron.
Salmon, listed simply as “Cana” on the menu, turns out to be salmon escabeche, Spain’s famous sweet-and-sour fish dish. At Ola, it’s fresh and beautifully prepared, spiked with lime and glazed with sugar cane and dark rum. But wait, there are more good things on the plate: baby spinach, shiitake mushrooms, quinoa, warm sweet-plantain salad and ginger-lemongrass salsa.
Variety, too, is right up there with things we like. So many dishes, so many ingredients. The chef’s shopping list must be a mile long. However, because quite a few dishes are flavored with cilantro, a feeling of sameness tends to creep in. This is definitely a matter of taste since half the world seems to worship this strident herb while the other half hates it. A menu alert might be indicated. Or an offer to opt in or out.
Another quibble: For me, the sugar cane glaze on the salmon and the barbecue sauce on the ribs are overly sweet. And that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy desserts.
Ola’s dessert list is short and sweet and traditional: A fluffy tres leches made with coconut and served with caramelized bananas, dulce de leche cheesecake and a lovely flan served with dried figs soaked in red wine. The kitchen is out of the “Exotic Bamba” we couldn’t wait to try. Mango, passion fruit and raspberry sorbets covered in white chocolate and drizzled with chocolate. Wow. Another reason to return.
This is really a good place to try new things. Nothing’s too weird or outrageously expensive, the staff is helpful, the ambience nonjudgmental. Fresh, high-quality ingredients are knowledgeably prepared in-house. And, look around, everybody’s having a good time. They may or may not be Nuevo Latino connoisseurs, they just know a good thing when they taste it.
694 Brooklawn Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 296-4884, olarestaurantct.com
Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10, Sunday till 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $19 to $29, desserts $7 to $8.