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VIVA OLEA

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Johannes Sanzin and Chelsea Altman have struck again. The co-owners of Fort Greene’s Pequena, a small, casual Mexican eatery, and Clinton Hill’s Maggie Brown, another casual bar and American bistro, have joined with new partner Dan DiMarti, to open their third Brooklyn restaurant, Olea. Their newest addition to Fort Greene is a gorgeous, pan-Mediterranean taverna and raw bar with a far-reaching menu that works.

Housed in the former A Table space, Olea, which opened in September, features a moody room with dark wood beams running across the ceiling. The floor is paved with terra cotta tiles, and instead of fabric-covered banquettes, there are surprisingly comfortable wooden benches along the walls.

However, it’s the windows that make lingering in Olea (Latin for "olive") so rewarding. The entire front of the space is floor-to-ceiling glass bordered with tiny sparkling panes edged in a dusty jade color. The windows frame leafy Lafayette Avenue, affording diners an ideal perch for people-watching.

In the kitchen is Gary Moran, late of Relish in Williamsburg, and before that Manhattan’s Bouley and Citarella. Moran’s menu rounds the Mediterranean, dipping into Greece, Italy and the Middle East. He’ll mix Italian risotto with Greek cheese; toss a salad with pomegranate juice-laced vinaigrette and sprinkle pine nuts over the top; and pair a crisp chicken breast with Moroccan vegetables, Israeli couscous and a dab of orange-cardamom aioli (French mayonnaise sauce). Minor disappointments occur during a meal, but even then, Moran should be applauded for taking a few risks in the kitchen.

To begin, there’s falafel-crusted artichoke hearts. The falafel coating is crisp but too heavy, making for less-than-delicate eating. They’re accompanied by a rich Turkish eggplant salad that is smoky, thanks to their charring on the grill, and given a hint of sweet and sour flavoring with pomegranate molasses. I can’t imagine tasting a better version of the salad than Moran’s. On the plate are squares of pan-roasted "Halloumi," a slightly salty Greek cheese similar to feta, that takes on a nutty taste when it’s roasted. There’s also a bit of tahini sauce and sauteed spinach too; like most of what I sampled, all the components harmonize, and the appearance of the dish looks simple, not cluttered.

The batter used in the "piccolo fritto," a big plate of fried calamari, mussels and lemon slices with fresh sage leaves, could be lighter, but I’d order the dish again in a second. Have you tried a fried mussel? They’re delectable. Especially when they’re consumed with a chewy, tart slice of lemon and swiped through "agrodolce," a sweet and sour syrup comprised of reduced red wine vinegar, sugar and Turkish pepper sauce made with red chili peppers.

Risotto can be a hit-or-miss affair, too often rendered into gummy rice. At Olea, the grains are just right: tender yet not mushy. Moran uses a rich, seafood stock as the dish’s base, then strews the mix with sweet shrimp, and adds an unexpected touch: bits of creamy feta cheese that melt into the grains, adding a touch of nuttiness.

"Chermoula," the Moroccan blend of coriander, garlic, paprika, lemon juice and olive oil, lends heat to a large filet of moist, wild salmon, and forms a crisp crust around the fish. Moran accompanies it with chunks of slow-roasted beets and fried beet greens. The plate is given a bright, citrus note with slices of roasted orange and a splash of coriander-caraway vinaigrette. Although there are a lot of contrasting flavors, textures and spices going on, the dish doesn’t careen out of control.

The dessert menu features five dishes that do a good - if not wonderful - job of complementing the meal. The "due panna cotta"- two ramekins of the custard - were each just right: the vanilla was subtly enhanced with fresh rosemary and the chocolate, topped with slivers of candied orange peel, was given a slightly bitter note with a hint of saffron.

The problem with the roasted fruit with spice bread and creme fraiche was its presentation. A large bowl is filled with pear halves that sit atop spiced bread and are doused with creme fraiche. It’s too clumsy looking and not exciting enough to work as dessert, but I wouldn’t mind half of it served with coffee for breakfast.

I’m looking forward to sitting in Olea’s dining room and watching the snow fall, the leaves turn green again, and come this summer, sitting at one of the outdoor tables beside the eatery. If I’m feeling really loving toward my companion, I may even share my fried mussels.

 

Olea (171 Lafayette Ave. at Adelphi Street in Fort Greene) accepts cash only. Entrees: $15-$18.50. The restaurant serves dinner daily; breakfast and lunch from Monday through Friday; and brunch on the weekends, from 10 am to 4:30 pm. For reservations, call (718) 643-7003.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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