Writing about food in 2019 is sort of like being on Tinder, as the thought of returning to a place where you hooked up with a few plates of food feels like dippin’ in the old well. Doing what I do, it’s very hard to fall in love with a place, even if it’s right down the street and treats you right.
But one place I truly miss after a month or so of dining around is Olea in Newport Beach. The menu, cocktails and service greet me like an excited dog at the door after a lengthy vacation.
The restaurant is resort-casual, with plenty of cushy booths and tables surrounding the central bar, with real logs transported to the ceiling. The combination of natural and modern elements lend a cool Ansel Adams-style camera obscura vibe, complete with Northern California wine bottles adorning the wall.
But for most, the sexiest thing about Olea is the menu, which is hard not to read in a sultry Barry White voice. But does all that deliciousness on paper translate to the plate? Ohhh, yeah.
There are eye-catching items such as grapevine-smoked-salmon deviled eggs, duck terrine with bourbon and bacon, and blue crab baked oysters with Champagne tarragon butter. The level of detail adding subtle comfort foods to staples is perhaps its strongest point.
Those simple-sounding deviled eggs beg to be drawn like a French girl, as an unexpected scoop of black tobiko caviar and pink-pickled onion sit atop each like one of Marie Antoinette’s hats. The satisfying crunch of the roe mixes with a hint of smokiness from the salmon that coats your palate with bursts of umami, making each bite a sushi-roll-like experience. This alone could be dinner if you were flying solo at the bar.
Olea’s menu is currently in the thick of autumn, and the Oktoberfest vibe I got from the crispy Jidori chicken schnitzel with maitake mushrooms had a good chance of scratching my German itch. The fowl is pounded thin enough to be the size of a kid’s baseball mitt, yet it has an unmistakable crunch that could be heard from a table over. A drizzle of whole-grain-mustard gravy helps to soften up the top, and the spaetzle on the bottom, made with butternut squash, has a dumpling-esque mouthfeel that ties it all together.
The core cocktails don’t change nearly as much as longtime bartender Inga Tantisalidchai’s hair color does, which is kind of cool; the drinks she makes are extremely consistent and tasty. If you’re down for her monthly whim, go in time to grab her 7th Inning Stretch, a nutty twist on a whiskey sour. The drink mixes Gentleman Jack, Frangelico, cocoa and macadamia bitters and is rimmed to perfection with black onyx chocolate sugar floating on an imperial porter beer. It’s garnished with a gentleman’s note that changes from drink to drink. A recent note read, “Only trust people that like big butts. . . . They cannot lie.” Sir Mix-a-Lot would be proud.
Olea, 2001 Westcliff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 287-6807; oleanewportbeach.com.