It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since L’Olivier opened. Chef Olivier Ciesielski was born in France and started as a sous chef at Michelin three-star restaurant Bernard Loiseau. He worked under pastry chef Yves Thuries, followed that with Le Crillon in Paris and was even the personal chef to the Onassis family for a time.
After moving to Houston, he worked as executive chef at La Colombe d’Or, then spent more than a decade at Tony’s, where he found many fans before striking out on his own.
Interestingly, L’Olivier has flown under the radar once the post-opening furor died down, despite a very visible spot at 240 Westheimer. The year 2012 saw fast and furious high-profile restaurant openings, including Oxheart, The Pass & Provisions and Underbelly. Interest in Hugo’s was as intense as ever. If there's any question about how significant that year was for Houston dining, note that every single one of these restaurants has a James Beard-nominated chef attached to it (in Underbelly's case, a Beard-winning chef).
Perhaps Ciesielski’s time for greater visibility has come. L'Olivier has endured, evolved as needed and quietly built its own loyal fan base, despite not getting much media attention for the past two years. We were invited to see what's new, and the food seems poised to win a new set of fans — or convert those who haven't been in lately.
Some elements seem like magician’s work, like the jar of “pickled olives and garlic” that is a total illusion. Indeed, it’s delightfully shocking when an “olive” is retrieved from the jar and discovered to be spherized brine. Ciesielski serves the liquid-filled spheres as an amuse-bouche for special dinners. “The restaurant name isn’t just my name,” explained Olivier. “It means “the olive.”
That bit of symbolism aside, many of Ciesielski’s dishes find magic in the simplicity of seasonal fruits and cheese. Take, for example, Mary’s Salad, ablaze in color thanks to nothing more than nature, with brilliant red watermelon slices, peach wedges at peak ripeness with ruby centers, green basil, and clouds of goat cheese all a-drizzle with olive oil.
The philosophy of taking the best of what nature gives and treating it simply and with respect comes to the forefront again in Ciesielski’s tableau of scallop crudo six ways. Sea meets orchard with fresh slices of apple, plum, orange, peach and mint, with one scallop left to be appreciated unto itself.
Another part of Ciesielski’s philosophy that Houstonians can appreciate is the fact that what is seasonal in the rest of the country in October and November just doesn't make a lot of sense for this climate. Chefs in other parts of the country may be dusting off their recipes for dense meats, rich sauces and root vegetables, but when it's still in the high 70s to low 90s, Ciesielski realizes that doesn't make a lot of sense. So, for now at least, crudos and stone fruit are still "in" — sweet potatoes and cream-laden soups have to wait their turn.
With that said, those looking for rich, hearty dishes have plenty of options, too. Silky bone marrow covered in garlicky persillade, sous vide short ribs, oxtail-stuffed ravioli and seared foie gras are just a few of the meaty selections.
Lighter seafood dishes still full of flavor are still appropriate, too, and they are not in short supply at L'Olivier. There's a good selection of fish — Mediterranean sea bass, tuna, salmon, swordfish and more — as well as seared shrimp carefully balanced on top of golden pasta that gets its hue from an infusion of curry powder. That flavor is amplified and mirrored in a light curry broth, and the dish gets an infusion of freshness and color from a chunky tomato sauce and a hefty dose of micro-greens.
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It's almost required to have the Floating Island — the classic French dessert that's been on the menu since L'Olivier opened. The perfect dome of meringue manages to support a drizzly, brittle shell of caramel. Underneath awaits a bath of crème anglaise, a light, classic custard that is the only argument ever needed for the value of vanilla-flavored anything.
Tasting menus are available nightly and come in varying sizes: three for $35, five for $75 or eight for $125. Wine pairings are optional and add between $30 and $70 to the cost, depending on the size of the selected tasting menu.
Considering the culinary adventure that is now under way, trying a range of dishes at L’Olivier is definitely something worth consideration.