Gloriously Gallic at L'Olivier
Come inside chef Olivier Ciesielski's big, open kitchen in our slideshow.
Something occurred to me halfway through my final lunch course at L'Olivier one afternoon. Over an apple tart so simple as to be nearly ascetic — perfectly flaky puff pastry bottom providing a buttery buttress to the gentle fan of paper-thin Granny Smith apple slices that nearly floated above it — I decided that all this current hand-wringing over the so-called "tyranny of tasting menus" (a phrase semi-coined by Corby Kummer in Vanity Fair this past February) is a bit unnecessary.
For every achingly modern gallery-cum-dining room that comes along with rollicking fervor, there are restaurants like French chef Olivier Ciesielski's namesake, L'Olivier: even-keeled restaurants that take their ingredients and skills just as seriously but with an eye to the customs and cuisines that have withstood the test of time. At restaurants like L'Olivier, the menus are laid out clearly and concisely. There's no guesswork involved in what you're ordering, but you'll still be subtly surprised by how effortlessly the dishes come together.
Ciesielski is a master of the puff pastry, showcasing the fine layers in pared-down constructions such as that apple dessert or savory tarts with soft coins of potatoes and leeks tucked inside — dishes that are stunning yet simple in that gracious, Audrey Hepburn sort of way. Ciesielski knows the food he's serving is beautiful but never feels a need to gild the lily.
It shows in French standards like his escargots, the chewy little snails baked in a sauce that's another subtle surprise. Ciesielski grinds parsley, olive oil and sherry vinegar into a paste for his snails, and the result is a much softer combination of sweet, herbal flavors that have far more life to them than the clunky garlic butter that's often thoughtlessly gooped on top elsewhere. That leek and potato tart hides a bright burst of saffron inside. The appetizers side of the menu has been known to feature a yuzu-based ceviche filled with whitefish, scallops and shrimp.
It's small touches like these that keep L'Olivier fresh and current while the remainder of the menu and the highly polished waitstaff keep the overall experience firmly planted in French bistro territory — ground that's well-traveled for a reason.
Diners don't have to worry about tasting menus taking over the dining scene to the exclusion of everything else. Instead, the modern diner's palate and horizons are expanding simultaneously — especially in Houston. There is an appreciation for varied cuisines both high and low, both conceptual and grounded, both wild and refined, for woolly, adventurous tasting menus and calm, continental meals that call back to a more elegant version of living — and of dining. There is room and indeed an appreciation for both, and L'Olivier makes a very persuasive argument for the latter of the two.
Part of the reason L'Olivier persuades so easily is Ciesielski's background.
As the head chef at Tony's for a decade, the France-born Ciesielski grew intimately familiar with the best ingredients money could buy while serving the wealthiest patrons Houston could produce. Before that, he cooked in Parisian strongholds such as Le Crillon, worked under the notoriously demanding chef Bernard Loiseau and served as the personal chef for the Onassis family while the billionaire clan resided in Switzerland. Ciesielski cooking anything other than supremely elegant fare would be akin to Billie Holiday taking the flower out of her hair and spitting rhymes into the mike.
Despite his pedigree, Ciesielski walks the dining room in the evenings with an almost shy, boyish grin — as if he still can't believe he owns the joint. His name isn't embroidered on his chef's whites. He doesn't hold court but instead seems genuinely interested in each table's experiences as he checks on them. As Ciesielski once told Houston Chronicle food editor Greg Morago before L'Olivier opened in April of last year: "It's not about me; it's about the customer."
Of Ciesielski's former employer, fine dining institution Tony's, Robb Walsh recently wrote in Houstonia: "It's not all about the chef here; it's still all about making the diner feel special." That attitude exists in new restaurants as well, with L'Olivier as a notable example. Ciesielski and co-owner Mary Clarkson have stocked the restaurant with staff who place the diner front and center as well, from sommelier Todd Leveritt — a veteran of both the service industry and the United States Marine Corps whose initial steely presence belies a soft smile and a thorough knowledge of wine — to servers cherry-picked from the best restaurants in the city.
The entire package is tied up with a pretty bow by the spare but inviting dining room in cool tones of silvery-gray. Along with the metal-topped tables, molded plastic chairs in a mod white shade and a tightly woven marble herringbone floor in the bar area, it could all come across as too sterile were it not for some welcome punches of vivid orange-red from the patio walls — which are visible through the plate-glass windows in the dining room — and the warm exposed-brick wall behind the bar.
In the first few months of service, Clarkson and Ciesielski also added a fabric-covered set of floor-to-ceiling panels at one end of the rectangular dining room. The partition affords them the opportunity to host private functions such as the semi-regular Duchman Family Winery dinners that have been well-attended events, but it also makes the large space seem far cozier and thoughtfully planned.
In fact, you'd never know from looking at the smartly renovated space that the personal chef for the Onassis family is now cooking out of what was once an adult bookstore.
The extensive renovation adds to the feeling that L'Olivier is here to stay. Too many restaurants — in Houston and around the country — open to capitalize on trendy neighborhoods or cuisines. And even restaurants without a gimmicky hook simply may not survive Houston's fickle attention span. But one gets the sense while dining at L'Olivier that Ciesielski is in it for the long haul, determined to add his restaurant to a small but fierce number of Montrose stalwarts named for their like-minded chefs: Mark's American Cuisine, Da Marco, Hugo's.
Being in the game for the long run will, ideally, give Ciesielski ample time for some course corrections that would help catapult L'Olivier into those ranks. There's already been a marked improvement in the overdressed farmer's salad I tried in the first few weeks of L'Olivier's existence. Now the salad and its crispy lardons are dressed sparingly, which allows the rich yolk from an egg cooked at 62.5 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours to shine — as it rightfully should.
Certain standards like the steak frites are impeccable, with the kitchen automatically recommending a medium-rare sear on the sirloin. This keeps its rosy center juicy while providing a crusty, rustic char that's incredibly enjoyable to drag a knife through. A white paper bag on the side holds delicate curls of skinny frites with just the right touch of salt.
Chilled oysters on the half shell are served with a tart mignonette and pair wonderfully with a $12 glass of Domaine des Rochers Pouilly-Fuissé from a generous wine list that's a joint venture between Ciesielski and Leveritt.
But there are a few things lost in translation: A recent dish of buf bourguignon turned up with strange chunks of beef that were tender yet dry (I'm still not sure how that happens) over plush ribbons of pasta that was clearly homemade, but lacked salt and, therefore, any depth. Another pasta dish — ravioli filled with soft shreds of oxtail and topped with a decadent but restrained blue cheese cream sauce — was oddly textured, too. The little pockets fell apart like wet crepe paper but tasted so good that I eventually decided I was being pedantic about the whole thing.
What I like most about L'Olivier, after all, isn't a lockstep execution of dishes. It's the fact that it makes fine French food accessible — both in attitude and in price. Sure, there's an $18 lobster salad listed on the menu, but you'll get an entire lobster claw's worth of plump, sweet meat on your lettuce. Those oxtail ravioli with melted leeks will only set you back $17. And some dishes on the compact but well-stocked raw bar are pricey, but they're items you can't find at most restaurants, such as the whole sea urchin I greedily ate all by myself one day, savoring each jiggly spoonful of briny, barnyard-scented bliss scooped from inside its hollowed-out, spiny, $25 shell.
These are prices worth paying for Ciesielski's cuisine — mostly straightforward Gallic fare with tiny surprises that will make you raise an eyebrow and smile softly. So what if it's not exactly en pointe 100 percent of the time? Loiseau, Ciesielski's perfectionist mentor, committed suicide ten years ago amid rumors that the Michelin Guide was planning to demote his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, to two-star status from three.
Ciesielski isn't perfect, but he's happy. Judging by the crowded tables at L'Olivier every night, his customers are, too.
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