Written by guest author Noah Kopf
Photos by editor-in-chief Alara Degirmenci
Nestled into a High Street nook with only a simple metal design announcing its presence, Olea is the kind of place you could walk by a hundred times without noticing. But once you eat there once, you won’t ever fail to recall the experience when you walk by. In the kitchen, chef Manuel Romero channels flavors of his native Spain, but with the occasional pan-American twist. The food is elegant and composed, with dishes that highlight classic ingredients of Spanish cuisine. The inside holds a magically spacious-feeling dining room, but we ate outdoors on a sunny evening balanced perfectly between summer and fall. We were lucky enough to try the chef’s tasting menu of five brilliant dishes, plus dessert!
Arriving first was a trio of three classic Spanish morsels. Most noticeable to the eye was the gazpacho, which glowed with an inner orange radiance. Romero doesn’t use onions in his gazpacho so the flavor was mellow instead of pungent. We had it in its elemental form without bread or almond foam, but it didn’t feel like it was missing anything — in fact, the flavors played so nicely together that it was difficult to pick out any one component. Served in a small cup, it went down ever-so-smoothly and left me feeling refreshed and ready to try the next bite.
Next, a coin-sized flake of jamon iberico stood by itself. Jamon iberico is less smoky than Italian or American cured meats, so the flavor is more ham-like than one might expect from looking at it. For diners seeking to try this classic Spanish delicacy, Olea has the real deal. You can try to get a small portion to share, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself ordering another serving to get a second taste.
The shishito pepper was treated delicately with only a light browning on the sides. Many restaurants serve shishitos with a heavy squirt of lemon or vinegar; Olea lets them stand by themselves with only a couple thick flakes of salt. Legend has it that one in ten shishito peppers are especially spicy, but both of ours were mild. With minimal dressings I tasted more of the pepper itself, and enjoyed the herby bitterness at the end of each bite.
If the gazpacho was a testament to cooperative harmony, the ceviche was a stage to highlight different seafoods. Holding the dish together on the bottom was a mild tomatoey liquid swimming with mangos and onions. On top Romero served a spicy, bracing aji amarillo air. I was reminded of the cuisine of the titan Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who Romero has cited as an influence. The texture of the air may have been foamy, but the flavor was sharp — most of the acidity came from the air, not the broth. The shrimp was sweet and stood up to the different flavors nicely. But the biggest star of this dish was the smoky, meaty octopus which paired especially well with the fruitiness of the mangos. I immediately went fishing for another piece of octopus once I had my first bite. In fact, each of the four seafoods in the dish — shrimp, octopus, mussels, and scallops — brought out different notes in the dish. The ceviche is a classic of Olea. Romero said “I cannot take it out [of the menu]. We got customers coming for it.” After tasting it, I might just consider myself part of that group of customers!
The two cocktails we ordered, the Black Forest and the Verde, could not have looked more different. The Black Forest was tall, foamy and a dark moody purple, while the Verde was a compact, vibrant emerald potion. As our server brought the Black Forest he held a lighter to a dried sprig of rosemary. It didn’t just blister; it combusted, and remained smoking after it had been partially submerged into the drink. The egg white-based cloud on top was thick and substantial, with a strong herbaceous essence. The liquid underneath resounded with summer brightness, dominated by the taste of fresh blackberries. Together, the rosemary and blackberries were sharp enough to hold up to the aromatic gin, and together created a cocktail that was refreshing, flavorful, and exciting.
The Verde paid tribute to the classic margarita, but with a spicy twist. The taste of jalapenos was very strong, but with more peppery freshness than pure spice. The pairing with kiwi was untraditional but excellent, as the calm floral sweetness of the kiwi balanced out the jalapeno and tequila.
The chef’s daily fish selection was the Branzino, which arrived on a delicate-looking field of peas, judiones de la granja white beans, purple potatoes, and salsa verde. But the minimalist appearance belied the hearty flavors. The salsa verde was rich, oily, and salty, but didn’t overwhelm the sturdy branzino itself, which had a fantastically crisp exterior. Romero packed a whole continent of flavors in the beans, which could easily be eaten by themselves. The clam was a briny interlude to the rest of the dish. After I finished the last bite of fish, I couldn’t help myself from tearing off a crust of bread to soak in the savory sauce left behind.
With the Wagyu meatballs, Romero played with classic American flavors: lightly seasoned beef, barbeque, tomato, parmesan. The barbeque flavors were tangy rather than smoky, so they complemented a plump, ready-to-burst tomato confit. Three brown beech mushrooms looked tiny next to the meatball, but they packed a big woodsy punch that transformed the palate of the dish from comforting to contemplative.
At this point I had started to feel full, but the sight of a beautifully-browned piece of duck convinced me to change my mind. We had the duck with a maple gastrique instead of the citrus gastrique listed on the menu, and you could not have convinced me to switch it out for anything! The duck was savory and rich, with only a hint of sweetness from the gastrique — the focus was maple, not maple syrup. But the star of the dish was the aromatic lavender flavors. Floral enough to bring out the maple’s sweetness but sharp enough to stand up to the duck, the lavender was a sophisticated, complex, and delightful touch. On the side, a lightly seared peach delivered some fresh, surprisingly-savory crispness. This dish is a great way to try duck for the first time for any eaters who haven’t had it before.
For dessert we first had the chocolate textures plate, which arrived with four distinct components. Tasting them in succession, I was reminded of different childhood favorites: the chocolate-hazelnut ice cream is a must for anyone who has a sweet tooth for Nutella (you won’t be disappointed), the chocolate mousse-vanilla ice cream sandwich had the neat look of a Hood cup, and the intense sweetness of the milk chocolate rice crispy actually reminded me more of a Crunch bar. But each of them had been elevated far beyond their distant cousins. The ice cream came with a pleasantly bitter caramelized crisp which interrupted the sweetness of the chocolate, which generally tended towards milky rather than dark. I finished by tasting the white chocolate soup, which was delicate and floral; rosemary made a surprise and welcome appearance, as did a faint and refreshing aftertaste of mint.
The apple doughnut is a classic at Olea, and deservedly so. The smell of the apple doughnut alone made me excited for cool New England fall weather. The doughnut was yeasty and satisfying, with a thick exterior. But the flavors were decidedly fruity. A hidden layer of crumble topping provided a surprisingly big crunch, and with the fresh apple and ice cream I was instantly reminded of apple crisp. It was a perfect balance of sweet and savory, and any diner would do themself well to not skip dessert on a trip to Olea.
Olea is world-class cuisine as close to Yale’s campus as you can get. Manuel Romero’s cooking pays dutiful and perfectly-executed tribute to classic Spanish flavors, but with the occasional pan-American influence. In a conversation after the meal, Romero was upfront about the difficulty of operating a restaurant and breaking even in the midst of a pandemic. But he said that what keeps Olea going is passion. He said “if you love what you do the results are going to be much better than if you’re just doing it for a check… especially in the restaurant business.”
At Olea, you can taste that passion in every bite.