Extending an Olive Branch 2

Fig & Olive’s new chef de cuisine Carlos Lool finds inspiration in Newport Beach

Fashion Island celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. The open-air shopping center houses high-end boutiques and department stores. But, the real draw these days are the impressive array of restaurants housed within it. A diner can easily travel the world without leaving Newport Beach’s borders. A jaunt to Japan with an omakase at Sushi Roku, a taste of Mexico a la Rick Bayless’s Red O, or a frankfurter from the quaint Gourmet Hot Dog Cart, then return to the states with a burger from Café R&D. Then, there is Fig & Olive–an expansive Mediterranean-inspired restaurant that transports you to Founding Chef Laurent Halasz’s childhood home in the South of France.

When Fig & Olive first opened at Fashion Island a few years ago, there was a definite buzz surrounding the space. My husband and I dined at the expansive restaurant several times. The one thing that was immediately apparent was this was the place to be seen. Upon entering the cozy, dimly-lit entryway, you spotted the main bar, and it was packed. In fact, each time we visited, the bar was always packed with groups of women squeezed into Balmain dresses wearing red Louboutin heels; colleagues meeting for a quick drink after work; famished shoppers seeking a comfortable chair and a large glass of chardonnay. The boisterous scene was slightly off-putting, but soon my husband and I realized that this crowd made for stupendous people-watching. On another visit, a friend of ours even spotted Kobe Bryant. That’s when we decided: This place is too popular.

So, we took a break. I had not dined at Fig & Olive for nearly two years. Then, I was invited back to meet the new chef, Carlos Lool. Under the guise of Fig & Olive’s corporate chef Adam Bordonaro, Lool crafts a menu that continues to celebrate crisp Mediterranean flavors. The restaurant’s signature crostini flights continue to wow me each time. The creamy burrata with tomatoes and pesto is a predictable standard, but the roasted mushroom with artichoke, shaved Parmesan and truffle is the perfect match for a bubbly glass of Champagne. The surprising delight of the flight was the thinly sliced marinated octopus with creamy hummus and smoky pimentón.

The fig and Gorgonzola tartlet arrives with a mound of green arugula leaves. The peppery arugula melds well with the sweet jammy figs. Thin slices of prosciutto are interwoven around the greens and pickled shallots give the dish little pops of color. The buttery puff pastry beneath it flakes and crumbles. I try my best to eat daintily, cutting each bite with a knife and a fork when all I really want to do is fold the tart in half and devour it with my hands. But, I restrain myself. After all, this is only the first course.

A beautifully seared Branzino filet garnished with a dot of spicy green harissa is next. The fish is prepared a la plancha and plated with bright yellow wax beans, haricot vert and simple roasted potatoes. The chef lets the fish take center stage. Other main dishes carry through with a Mediterranean flare, such as the rosemary lamb chops with braised honey eggplant served with pillowy ricotta gnocchi. The only disappointment was an over-glazed beef dish with a sweet sauce that reminded me of Chinese char siu. It was the only hiccup in an otherwise divine dinner.

The sweet side of the menu is worth saving room for, especially if you opt for the caramelized apple tart with vanilla ice cream. Another standout: The season’s dessert “crostini” that combines sweet Amarena cherries with whipped mascarpone, pistachios and crumbly shortbread. After my last bite, I sigh and think: it’s good to be back.

Fig & Olive, 401 Newport Center Drive, Suite 151, Newport Beach/949.877.3005