On my last trip to New York, I was taken to one of the four Fig & Olive restaurants there, this one on 13th Street in the meatpacking district (the others are on Lexington, Fifth Avenue, and in Westchester.) I thoroughly enjoyed the raffish ambiance and excellent food, and commented that I thought it would do well in L.A. Voilà, I will soon know if that's true, for they have now opened a very spacious, stunning restaurant at 8490 Melrose Place (a smart little street of decorator shops; it's at the corner of LaCienega in West Hollywood.) Many years ago I reviewed an eatery called Republic in this space, and remember it more for the large space than the spacey food.
The new Fig & Olive is absolutely spectacular, a huge 8,000 sq. ft. split-level space which emits a warm and inviting feel, somehow radiating intimacy on a grand scale. At a pre-opening event, I chatted with the founder, Laurent Halasz, and we talked about his growing up in Mougins in the South of France, a village which I visited annually for years while attending the Cannes Film Festival. (Many were the long, wine-laden lunches I enjoyed at a tiny bistro, Le Moulin de Mougins.) Laurent pointed out to me that this is where the 'Cuisine of the Sun' originated, and said his several restaurants are a direct link to his Mediterranean roots on the rivieras of Southern France, Italy and Spain.
"My Executive Chef, Pascal Lorange, and I have a passion for this cuisine," he told me. "Our menu highlights the focal ingredient, olive oil, and we pair it with each dish in the place of butter." He noted that the olive oil used ranges from a sweet and delicate one from the French Riviera, which pairs well with a Steamed Lemon Sole Papillate, to a green-fruit version from Provence served with Green Apple Sorbet. Each meal here begins with a free tasting of three distinct extra-virgin olive oils, paired with the freshly-baked Rosemary Olive Oil Fourgasse Bread. Chef Pascal, 37, has worked in some of the most prestigious kitchens in Europe, including Michelin three-star Georges Blanc. Most interesting to me, he also spent six years in Tenerife, in the Spanish Canary Islands, as well as being the personal chef for Julio Iglesias. He joined Laurent in 2005 to help launch Fig & Olive.
One of the many things which I like about this new venue is that it encompasses a variety of seating options, both indoors and out, accommodating up to 300 guests comfortably. Its design is rather elegant, with limestone stucco walls, terra cotta-colored ceilings, and lots of rosemary plants and olive trees. They take reservations for the main dining room, but there is a 50 foot marble tasting bar and communal table where you can share lots of small plates ($12 to $17). My favorites: a fig-and-gorgonzola tartlet featuring melted cheese, prosciutto, fig, walnut, arugula and tomato on a fine puff pastry, and an assortment of imported charcuterie -- think Jamon Serrano, Prosciutto, and Saucisson Sec, with cheese -- Taleggio, Gorgonzola Dolce, and Fromage de Chevre, olive, ceviche, tartar... all those goodies you like to consume while drinking exotic cocktails. Speaking of those cocktails and their wine list, they have about 30 Mediterranean varietals offered by the glass ($10-20). One evening we enjoyed an Italian Pinot Grigio, another night it was a Verentino from Corsica, while last night French film director Anne Goursaud and I enjoyed a Provence Grenache red. (Bottles range from $40 to $98). My only cocktail experience has been a Fig Mojito and the signature French Riviera-inspired "Piscine Imperial" ($24), which is just champagne on ice with fresh strawberries, an acquired taste.
When you enter, there is a glowing wall of olive oil bottles, all for sale... leading to the main dining room, adjacent to the open kitchen. This open room is stimulating in its ambiance, and I really felt like I was visiting my brother at his home in the south of France... a high ceiling and wrought-iron candlelit fig sconces on the walls. (One evening I watched a waiter light all of them with a firing device.) During the day, the space is flooded with daylight streaming through the 20-foot windows spanning the entire south side of the restaurant. A rambling olive tree anchors the room. This dining room leads out to an enclosed garden terrace where a skylight fills the room with natural light. The mood is entirely different in the evening, low lighting providing a relaxed, sophisticated feel, while an illuminated wine display sets the mood for an intimate dinner. This combined area can seat 130 people, yet I have never felt crowded in it. Walk up to the second-floor Champagne Bar and Lounge, which seats 50 and is available for private events. And, finally, there is an outdoor terrace on Melrose Place seating up to 40 amid olive trees and rosemary plants. See what I mean, enormous and exciting!
Dinner entrees run from $17 to $39 (for the Rosemary Lamb Chops, grilled chops smoked à la minute with an Herb de Provence bouquet, goat cheese and chive gnocchi, with roasted eggplant with thyme and honey). Last night's dinner started with Sea Scallop à la Plancha ($16), a seared scallop with a fig and apple puree morel, topped with aged balsamic. Prior to this, a tasting of Crostini (toasted breads, 3 for $9.50), truffled artichoke tapenade, with mushrooms and parmesan, drizzled with an aged balsamic vinegar. A 'must' is the aforementioned Fig Gorgonzola Tartlet ($14).
Opening week I had a Grilled Branzino ($28) glazed with a fig and 18-year-old balsamic, figs, snow peas, finished with a sweet Koroneiki olive oil. My date had the Striped Bass Papillote ($29), the parchment-paper wrapping filled with the fish and zucchini, eggplant, fennel, tomato, thyme, scallions, and saffron. When the waiter pierces the package, the aroma is breathtaking. It comes with chive mashed potatoes drizzled with Arbequina olive oil. Last night we shared a Roasted Veal Tenderloin ($36), the tender sliced meat accompanied by caramelized endive, fig chutney, raspberry balsamic, and mashed potatoes drizzled with Villa Lucia Tuscan olive oil. Two soups, a half-dozen salads, two pastas, a grilled sirloin and a filet mignon, chicken breast and even a seafood paella. Prices are quite moderate for such exquisite food, and the service is impeccable. One evening our fabulous waiter, James, told us how he had worked in their Manhattan place and came out here on his own to experience the L.A. scene. Chef Pascal said that they are working to have all of the desserts made with olive oil rather than butter and cream (although we both agreed we love them), and he said you will not notice the difference. All I know is that the desserts by Pastry Chef Andrew LeStourgeon, all $9, are fabulous. Imagine a dessert "crostini"... Amarena cherry, mascarpone, pistachio on shortbread with micro basil! My favorite is the Chocolate Pot de Crème, served with crunchy praline financiers and vanilla cream. Remember this if nothing else: a paper-thin warm caramelized Apple Tart -- which chef tells me is a family recipe handed down by Halasz's mother. Lavender Honey Madeleines, a warm Almond Marzipan cake with candied orange and toasted almonds, served with an olive oil gelato. I have not yet had lunch here, so that will warrant another review shortly.
It takes great hope and fortitude to open such a huge and intriguing restaurant in these uncertain days. And Los Angeles is a particularly finicky and erratic town when it comes to eateries, so I applaud Laurent Halasz and wish him well.
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