Here are three things I like: French food, trying new restaurants, and French food. I said "French food" twice because I really, really like it. It is so unlike the home-style, Italian-American fare I grew up on, and yet there is something so familiar and comforting about it. That I will be a tall, willowy French model-slash-food critic in my next life is all but assured.
So I naturally jumped at the chance to taste chef Olivier Ciesielski's new spring menu at L'Olivier.
The five-course menu looked promising from the start, beginning and ending with soups (butternut squash and strawberry, respectively). While butternut squash soup with apple and sage might sound basic, this first course caught me off-guard--in a good way--right off the bat. Expecting the usual sweet, gentle smoothness of butternut, this was instead an herbaceous, peppery kick of flavor; the sweetness came through just slightly at the end, and along with the cream garnish mitigated the intensity of the peppery heat. My palate was wide awake, and I was ready for more.
Course two was a trio: two salads, and an avocado pancake topped with crab meat. The first salad -- beet and goat cheese -- was easy to appreciate, even if the two-star ingredients are not among my favorites. (I'm working on it.) The "240 Salad," so named for the restaurant's address on Westheimer, was more successful for me with its classic pairing of blue cheese, apples, and almonds over mixed greens. The star of the show was obviously the avocado pancake which was smooth and creamy, and the perfect vehicle for the sweet chunks of crab and diced mango. I loved the smooth green pancake against the firm crab. I would eat this three times a day, every day.
Courses three and four are where things got pretty exciting for me. First, the house-made pea ravioli served in a light, creamy thyme sauce and topped with a disc of crispy, salty pancetta -- do I really need to say, "Hey guys, this was effing delicious!"? Because I will: This was effing delicious. Obviously pancetta improves everything, from ice cream to pasta, but what really got me excited here was the way the pea filling came right through, holding its own against pasta and a cream sauce. I think it's a real trick to get a veggie ravioli filling to shine, but the peas were the star here. (Though I wouldn't have said no to three or four more discs of pancetta.)
The fourth course was a pan-seared halibut topped with a warm, briny seaweed salad and served atop a garlic-soy reduction sauce, described by chef Ciesielski as "not so very French," but I found it lovely just the same. Cooked only on one side the fish was perfectly seasoned, with a satisfyingly crisp crust and the warm seaweed and the slight-sweet reduction stayed balanced through the last bite.
Those of us at the table were ready for course five -- a strawberry soup with pistachio ice cream -- but were surprised when we were next served a light, poached egg soufflé. When I took my first bite I tasted salty, eggy goodness -- maybe some cheese? I wondered -- but with the second bite a big, yellow ooze of yolk ran out onto the plate and I was in ecstasy. The saltiness was actually a truffle butter -- overwhelming in some bites, but generally quite lovely -- and I was tempted to clean my plate, but for the promise of dessert. The soufflé was delicious and what I would consider perfect brunch fare, but its placement between the fish and dessert was a little off-kilter. Mine was also a bit deflated, which doesn't make for the most appetizing appearance, but that egg yolk more than made up for a lack of aesthetics. My kingdom for a hunk of baguette, to sop up that beautiful mess!
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A surprise, and a pleasant one, this soup was not the light, frothy summer soup I expected but a substantial, full-bodied serving complete with halved strawberries. I loved that there was some bite here, and that the pistachio ice cream was not overly sweet; the strawberries themselves, sweet with syrup, were the sugary star of the show. Additional crunch was delivered via crushed pistachios, and I was wowed by what I consider the unexpected pairing of the two flavors. Pistachio and strawberries? It's my new favorite.
In my most humble opinion, the pea ravioli and the avocado pancake are worth the price of admission all on their own. Spring has sprung at L'Olivier.