Res­tau­rant L’Olivier, re­viewed

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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.

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