Wine Country Cuisine comes to Newport
By Andrew Reed
Russ Bendel and his team have done it again. Olea, in Newport Beach is his third effort, following Vine in San Clemente and Ironwood in Laguna Hills. Featuring the same winning combination of team members - Jared managing the kitchen and Gabe, the bar, this latest effort lets Bendel riff on his winning concept yet again. And that he does, putting, as he says, a European twist on his wine country-inspired cuisine.
And by doing so, He has created something distinct, while still weaving in a bit of the familiar from those that have gone before it.
Olea sits in a fairly unassuming part of Newport Beach, butting up against sprawling Costa Mesa. By all appearances, the area is undergoing a bit of a facelift and I would expect that the addition of Olea will assist in sprucing up the area even further. The outside of the restaurant looks clean and modern, fitting in with the surrounding architecture. Once inside, one can really appreciate this iteration of the warm and inviting interiors that each of Bendel’s three restaurants reflect in their own, unique way.
Named after a variety of tropical tree, the décor at Olea underscores the origins of the name. From an interesting vertical display of sun-bleached driftwood, dividing part of the dining room from the kitchen, to the organic warmth of long pine logs, bark on, forming the ceiling, wood and stone finishes abound.
Counterpoint to the organic elements are clean lines and distressed metal that layer in industrial look, as well as a custom lighting feature that finishes the dining area off with a modern flair.
The bar makes efficient use of its space, but still provides plenty of room to belly up for a craft cocktail, or a nice glass of wine. Craft beer selection is solid and features some local options. The wine list, as expected, is well put together with a range to suit many palates and budgets. A nice feature of the wine list is the large number of wines available by the glass. This provides the flexibility to switch it up once or twice to pair with the diverse selection of dishes.
We started with a couple of cocktails – Rich Girl is light and refreshing, featuring rose wine, vodka, yuzu, and fresh basil. My selection was at the other end of the spectrum, smoky and captivating! It’s one of the special cocktails that Olea mixes up, this one an ode to Anthony Bourdain, called No Reservations.
Bourbon, rye whiskey, peach and orange liqueurs, ginger and a burnt cinnamon stick never tasted so good! I was raving so much about this delicious concoction that our server was nice enough to share the recipe.
Another carryover is the prominence of the kitchen at Olea. You can look into the open cooking arena from many parts of the restaurant, but it’s not so overbearing as to seem intrusive. It does give you an opportunity to see what a well-run kitchen looks like. Nothing to hide here as the cooking line just keeps turning out excellent food.
As mentioned previously, Olea pays homage to its predecessors, weaving a few menu offerings from Vine and Ironwood into the mix. These are perennial favorites such as the Crispy Meyer Lemon & Honey Duck Wings and the Jidori Chicken Schnitzel. Our own foray started with a rich terrine of duck liver, bourbon and bacon accompanied by smoky pain grille, as well as a crudité platter, which was a nice, lighter alternative to the meat and cheese board and featured house-pickled vegetables. These items were followed by a few additional appetizers that were amazing - baked oysters topped with blue crab, some sweet and savory garnet yam agnolotti, as well as the mushroom salad. Each of these were executed nicely, with the oysters being my favorite – rich crab meat and champagne tarragon butter juxtaposed to the briny bite of the oysters make this a worthwhile indulgence.
For entrees, we selected a featured dish, Herb Roasted Beef Cheek Stroganoff, as well as a special, chicken fried lobster tail, that is only available on Mondays. The beef cheeks in stroganoff were very tender and the house-made rosemary pappardelle pasta, roasted oyster mushrooms, cippolini onion, charred scallion mustard, and crème fraiche rounded out this dish beautifully. Admittedly, lobster is one of my favorites, but I have never had it chicken-fried. Let’s just say, it’s a great reason to dine out on a Monday! The tail itself was larger than I would have expected for the price, and it came accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and some nice roasted vegetables. A drizzle of champagne bearnaise completed the flavor extravaganza and made it clear why the menu refers to this dish as “Jared’s Infamous Chicken Fried Maine Lobster Tail.”
As we always strive to capture a complete dining experience, we wrapped things up with a bit of dessert. This involved cookies with dark chocolate chunks and fromage blanc, as well as a delicious Crème Brule. The cookies were topped with peanut butter cup gelato and Spanish peanut crumble, providing a most decadent flourish to the end of the meal, especially when paired with a pour of premium bourbon.
What I really enjoy about Olea is the fact that you are eating farm-to-table freshness in a casually elegant environment. Olea hits the sweet spot that balances quality with affordability, validating Russ’ approach and delivering an amazing fine dining experience.
2001 Westcliff Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660