After spending over a week in Spain over spring break, I thought I was done with Spanish food — surely any tapa or paella I ate in the U.S. would be a letdown after leisurely patio meals of authentic Mediterranean fare. Could Olea, a beautifully designed Spanish restaurant on High Street, measure up to my experiences in Barcelona and Madrid? In the midst of restaurant week, I decided to find out.
When I arrived, the host led me to one of the small tables along the wall. Things started with a roll of bread and olive oil, followed by a mini torta espanola (Spanish omelet). I am able to say confidently that it measured up to the real thing. The appetizer, piquillos de pisto, consisted of three red peppers — stuffed with the typical squash, zucchini and onion — on top of a layer of creamy cheese sauce. They were tasty, the flavors well-balanced and not overwhelming.
The peppers were a strong start to the meal, and the entree had big shoes to fill. The “Polenta y Verduras” — polenta and greens — fell slightly short of these expectations. The polenta itself, served in a small cake form, was buttery and dense, the accompanying vegetables lightly grilled. It would have been nearly tasteless without the spinach pesto and romesco sauces drizzled around the edges, and even so, it simply wasn’t flavorful. Though not a total flop, I can’t say it was my favorite.
At this point, I was happy with what I’d been served, but not overly enthusiastic. The impending dessert had the power to make or break the experience. Happily, the cremoso de chocolate, a ganache-like creation filled with a light but creamy coffee flavored sauce, sealed the deal. It was a thing of beauty — rich but not overly sweet. I finished with a single shot of espresso.
The experience of going out to eat can never be isolated to the food alone. Atmosphere is important, which Olea knows and nails. The servers were friendly and competent, and the decor sleek and modern. The food presentation upped the ante. Every dish was perfectly centered on wide plates, sauces drizzled with care, the stray sprigs of parsley or scallion arranged just so.
Would I return? Yes. I entered moderately hungry and left moderately full — portions were on the smaller side but nowhere near microscopic. The combination of all the servings was a perfect size for dinner, and I think that “quite good” is a fair way to sum up Olea. It’s perhaps important to reiterate that Olea serves Spanish, not Latin American, food. Spice is not the goal: flavors are understated, occasionally bordering on bland (as the polenta made clear).
Olea is more upscale than most of New Haven’s offerings, a great place to go with adult family members or on a formal date. Expect a sit-down dinner in a lovely space with a bit of time between each course — this is a meal to savor over conversation.