Restaurant L’Olivier, reviewed
Wonderful things sometimes hide in plain sight. Everyone in Santa Fe has passed the piece of real estate on the corner of West Alameda and Galisteo streets a thousand times; many of you have probably turned to your friends and asked them if they’ve ever eaten at the restaurant that currently resides there, L’Olivier. It seems that the answer is often no, making Restaurant L’Olivier one of Santa Fe’s best-kept secrets. Perhaps L’Olivier, with its jaunty umbrellas and lush greenery, gives the impression of being more expenthan sive it is, at least for lunch. But despite the efforts of many American restaurateurs to the contrary, French bistro food is not necessarily unapproachable, fussy, or expensive, but rather can be a quick, affordable meal of premium ingredients cooked simply. Owner Xavier Grenet is both a classically trained French chef and a bona fide French person, and the whole vibe of the patio, the menu, and the professional but never intrusive servers has a distinctly French insouciance about it. The patio, despite being plunked right on a busy corner, is an enclave of serenity. L’Olivier is a bit thematically Frenchy (there is more than one miniature Eiffel Tower on the premises), but it comes off as charming rather than cloying, and surrounded by the climbing vines on the patio, you can easily forget for a moment that you’re in Santa Fe at all. The lunch menu features a suite of summery salads, duck confit, mussels, a burger, and even fish and chips — a pleasant mix of classic French bistro fare and Americanish items. An 85-degree day is gazpacho weather, and L’Olivier’s distinctly garlicky, tomato-rich infusion came with a lively sprinkling of olive oil bubbles on the surface that lent a pleasant fatty touch. It was topped with croutons that were miracstill ulously crunchy when the soup arrived.
The duck confit came with a side of ambrosial lentils cooked countrystyle with carrots and onions and herbs, the kind of flavor-dense, nuanced starch achievable only by the powers of mirepoix and French demi-glace (or long, slow cooking, perhaps). Those lentils, which could have been served on their own, were accompanied by the beautifully rendered duck leg and thigh, the skin turned into a divinely crispy outer layer (a bit more skin was added on top as a garnish and was much appreciated). The duck meat itself fell off the bone effortlessly, disappearing into the lentils and then just disappearing as the dish was demolished.
The mussels with frites was a similarly perfect dish: a surprisingly giant bowl of fresh shellfish in a bath of pleasantly light butter and garlic sauce that only needed a squeeze of lemon to make the whole thing pop. The fries were simple, fresh, and useful for mopping up the rest of the garlic-butter sauce — as were the fresh-baked rolls that arrived, just out of the oven, with the gazpacho. (If you order the mussels, make sure you also get a spoon so none of the broth goes to waste.)
The pricing at lunch is very French, too — i.e. reasonable. The mussels were a modest $12.50, and the duck confit was $13. That’s about what you’ll pay for a sandwich downtown, for a burger at a food truck, or at a particularly unrestrained trip to the Whole Foods hot bar, making it bewildering that the patio was mostly empty at lunchtime on a weekday. Oh well. More mussels for us.
Dinner at L’Olivier is a very different experience. The menu transforms from light bistro fare to high-end Frenchish cuisine with a bit of New American thrown in. Menu items will be familiar to anyone used to eating at white-tablecloth restaurants: braised short ribs, grilled elk tenderloin, duck breast, and the quintessentially Gallic steak frites.
Because L’Olivier is, after all, a French joint, we began the meal with escargot, served in a pool of butter and topped with diced black forest ham, cherry tomatoes, and almonds — a theoretically incongruous combination that got an eyebrow raise from us as it arrived. But we were pleasantly surprised: The mélange worked well, the flavors marrying seamlessly, and the escargots were perfect — tender and delicate, with nary an extra chew required.
The braised short ribs came with a rosemary and wine reduction, crunchy green beans, and green chile-Jack cheese mashed potatoes that had a pleasantly smoky flavor. The ribs were done to perfection, falling apart at the slightest touch of a fork. Also on the menu was glazed suckling pig with cauliflower gratin and baby bok choy. The meat itself was divine, though a little of it went a long way, and came with pieces of perfectly rendered skin. The gratin was the stuff gluttonous dreams are made of — the cauliflower was somehow still toothsome and firm, the cream and cheese melting into all the rivulets — but the pig and its sauce were a bit of a mismatch for it. The meal was topped off with a bowl of îles flottantes, little islands of cloudlike meringue floating in a decadent crème anglaise.
The entrees averaged about $30, making L’Olivier at dinner on par with some of Santa Fe’s other high-end establishments, but with a more relaxed and less rarified atmosphere. The only quibble is that the current dinner offerings seem distinctly wintry, heavy on the, well, heavy items — many dishes were a lot of food to digest on a hot night. The menu could do with a summer overhaul to swap out some of the thicker, creamier starches with seasonal vegetables, perhaps. But everything that arrived at the table during both lunch and dinner was perfectly executed, the flavors melding where they should, the ingredients handled with a masterful, and never overbearing, touch — the mark of truly fine French cooking.
An 85-degree day is gazpacho weather, and L’Olivier’s distinctly garlicky, tomato-rich infusion came with a lively sprinkling of olive oil bubbles on the surface that lent a pleasant fatty touch.