Olea in New Haven Delivers Extraordinary Spanish Dining; Our Review

Jeff Kaufman

★★★★ [Extraordinary]

When Ibiza in New Haven closed last spring, Connecticut lost a culinary treasure. Located on High Street, steps away from two famous art museums, it was itself a work of art, showcasing the best of modern Spanish cuisine in the state and on the East Coast. Busy, buzzy, frequently bustling, with a mile-long list of intriguing tapas and a devoutly loyal customer base, it vanished suddenly, as if it had never been.

Rumors flew. Diners mourned. But within six months, the spirit of Ibiza rose like a phoenix in the same location but in a glamorous new guise, re-imagined and rechristened, Olea. When the doors opened last August, Ibiza fans were first in line. If they expected the same-old they were in for surprise, then delight. Ibiza had been colorful and playful in a Picasso-like way. Olea is suave and sophisticated in stylish tones of black and white and gray. Ibiza was a fun tapas bar. Olea is a world-class, full-service, Spanish restaurant—with a fun tapas bar.

What makes all of the above relevant is the food. One taste and the regulars knew all was well—better than well . . . wonderful.

When we arrive to do an in-depth review, we feel the same, and with good reason: Ibiza chef Manuel Romero is in the kitchen, this time an owner, cooking at the top of his game.

In order to sample as many dishes as possible, we ask him to create a tasting menu of tapas and miniature portions of platos and desserts, which he is happy to do. Allergies? No. And away we go.

Two of us know Spanish food well. Avi is an explorer, raring to go. Hallie is fifteen, timid but tempted. The first tapas to appear reassure her: Light, hot, crisply French-fried codfish balls, as small and round as marbles, plated with paper-thin slices of Spain’s famous Iberian ham made from acorn-fed pork, aged 18 months. They disappear in a trice.

Ceviche mixto arrives next, perked up but not overpowered by aji amarillo, a yellow pepper sauce that packs none of the heat that cayenne, chili or jalapeño deliver. Made with bay scallops instead of sea scallops, silky little mussels, tender-crisp shrimp and the surprise tang of mango, this ceviche is unquestionably the best I have tasted in a long time.

We relax, and I, in particular, enjoy sybaritic servings of Grade A Hudson Valley foie gras with a passion fruit merillo “sandwich,” apple-mango chutney and aged balsamic.

But we are not to go unchallenged and what comes next startles us all: Point Judith baby squid in squid ink—the blackest ragout I have ever seen and the mildest. Hallie pales. I suggest tasting the coal-black stew with eyes closed, which she does and murmurs, “It doesn’t taste fishy at all.” She’s right, but settles for one bite. Avi, who has scraped his own plate clean, eyes Hallie’s untouched portion. She passes it to him and he polishes it off, blissfully employing a crust of bread to sop up every drop of sauce.

Moving on to entrées, we like each one better than the last. My favorite is loup de mer served à la plancha (skin-on) with fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, capers, cauliflower soubise and puffed quinoa. Nothing is too much trouble for this kitchen and in this dish every component plays a vital part, like musical instruments in a symphony.

In contrast, we also like a simple home-style dish of Bacalao, featuring Nova Scotia cod fish salted in house, huge white beans (de la Granga), red pepper and eggwhite pearls.

Chicken tagine with medjool dates, preserved lemon, almonds and ras el hanout takes me on a trip down memory lane—to Grenada where I fell in love with Moorish cuisine and the dancing fountains of Alhambra. At its best, dining creates and brings back pleasant memories.

Here and now, while awaiting dessert, I realize that my comforting feeling of being in good hands owes in large part to the fact that Juan Carlos Gonzales and his wife Maria are running the front of the house with warmth and panache as they have since the day Ibiza opened its doors. Andrea, chef Romero’s wife, is serving, describing and answering questions about the food, and now there’s another family player on the scene—Juan Carlos’ son Dan at the bar—at the moment mixing a cool Pisco sour for my friend Judy.

Ruminations cease when desserts arrive in a dazzling burst, like the finale of an Independence Day fireworks display.

Torrija, the traditional Easter dessert of Spain, takes pride of place. A sort of Fench toast made with leftover bread soaked in milk, Olea’s lovely version is made with caramelized brioche and tahini vanilla-infused milk with rosemary ice cream alongside. There’s flan, of course, classic and perfect, served with passion fruit ice cream on a plate sprinkled with chocolate “soil” (chocolate cake crumbs). An unlikely mishmash of hazelnut chocolate ice cream, flourless chocolate cake, crema Catalana foam and “peanut dust” is exuberantly delicious, and an intense, deep 65 percent dark bittersweet chocolate mousse seduces us nibble by nibble until it’s gone. We float out the door. It’s raining but who cares?Every cloud may or may not have a silver lining, but Olea’s rendition of Spain’s celebrated cocina vanguardia is brilliant.

And we don’t have to cross an ocean to enjoy it.

Olea

39 High St., New Haven

(203) 780-8925, oleanewhaven.com

Dinner: Mon. to Thurs. 5 to 9 30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 5 to 10 p.m. Price range: appetizers $11 to $17.50, entrées $24 to $33, desserts $9 to $12. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

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