Olivea is Full of Robust Flavors

The tradition of the New Year’s resolution stretches all the way back to 153 B.C. and considering the hectic and often stressful lifestyle that so many of us lead these days, it should come as no surprise to discover that “enjoying life more” has become a popular New Year’s resolution.

Of course, individual interpretation of how this resolution may be achieved will vary immensely but for me, great food is one of the cornerstones for enjoying life and great food is exactly what you’ll find at Olivéa restaurant in Denver. Featuring light and imaginative dishes with a Mediterranean flair, a trip to Olivéa needn’t expand your waistline either.

This elegant yet casual restaurant is a stand alone building located on Seventeenth Ave. in Denver’s vibrant uptown neighborhood with its lofts, freshly painted Victorians, and modern condo projects. Free parking is available either behind the restaurant or in the convenient, albeit tight, adjacent parking lot on the corner of 17th and Washington.

Olivéa (pronounced O-li-vày-a) is just the way a good neighborhood restaurant should be—lively, small and exceptionally busy. Head through the red-framed entrance door on the right (otherwise you’ll end up in Olivéa’s kitchen) and you’ll find an attractive space, which although cozy, surprisingly doesn’t feel at all crowded. Décor is more contemporary than classic Mediterranean; light wood floors meet warm gray walls decorated with modern art, and abstract curvy design elements separate the dining area from the open kitchen and bar.

The cocktail menu was so inventive that we were lured into trying something. My girlfriend went for the crisp and delicious “Ophelia,” with rosemary, lemon and gin, while I sipped a seasonal sangria enhanced by a house-made fruit nectar. Half of the listed beers were Colorado brews while the remainder offered choices from around Europe. Definitely on my list for next time is a house-made soda, although it might be difficult choosing between Lavender, Pear or Apple.

With Olivéa’s seasonally changing menu, emphasis is on buying local and organic and they partner with several Colorado farms, including one which is literally in Olivéa’s back yard. Dishes can be prepared gluten free and there are plenty of meat-free options too.

The evening got off to a humorous start when, inquiring about the excellent-sounding Mussels in a Chorizo Sherry Broth, I inadvertently asked our server, Patrick, “How are your mussels?” Fortunately, in addition to being very knowledgeable about the menu and forthcoming with recommendations, he had a good sense of humor!

We perused Starters, Salads and Soups, and choices made for sharing with the Flatbreads and extensive Charcuterie plates (the tasting of three is definitely the way to go), and skipped ordering unnecessary sides with entrées to ensure that, per the advice of Patrick, we saved room for dessert. Why? Because Olivéa‘s pastry chef, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, a James Beard semi finalist and recently named one of the top five pastry chefs in America by Gayot.com, turns out sensational desserts that you just have to experience.

Talk about a seasoned team of restaurateurs and chefs. Chef John Broening, one of Denver’s finest (and also Yasmin’s husband) is in charge at Olivéa’s kitchen and together with another husband and wife team, Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin from Duo and Café Colore, they are the geniuses behind this successful operation.

To awaken our taste buds, Patrick brought out a delicious olive amuse; juicy pitted olives marinated with harissa (a traditional North African hot chili paste), served at room temperature with accompanying crackers.

And hot on the heels of this kitchen teaser came our appetizer special, served in classic Mediterranean terracotta—juicy shrimp with a tiny hint of sweetness, sliced garlic and pancetta glazed in a splash of flavorful olive oil laced with Spanish paprika, which gave the dish a smoky, somewhat spicy touch. Following this delight came the wonderful Boudin Blanc; a delicate chicken sausage with a soft, mousse-like texture and although the casing took a bit more chewing than I would’ve liked, the flavor was beautiful—rich and creamy. A dollop of Dijon mustard and slivers of pickled red onion completed this uncomplicated dish with a perfect balance of flavors.

For entrées we opted for the house-made Tortellini and Grilled Mahi. Neat little packages of tortellini floated in a simple broth along with a rainbow of winter veggies. The cloud-like pasta parcels melted on the tongue when popped into the mouth, before surrendering to the bite with a delicious flavor explosion, highlighted with a subtle smack of pancetta. The plump and perfectly tender grilled mahi fillet sat on a ragu of French lentils and root vegetables, the mild white fish providing excellent contrast with the other earthy colors. A daub of grain mustard aioli on top added a subtle creaminess to further enhance the dish. Flavors were robust, fresh and clear and the two dishes were resplendently alive with color and texture.

I was definitely looking forward to dessert after Patrick had sold us on the idea at the outset of our meal, and it’s true to say we were blown away. Two heavenly picture-perfect creations arrived—the Chocolate and Fleur de Sel Caramel Tart and a Honey Walnut Tart. We reveled in the delicious moment of their arrival, taking in the spectacle before us.

Both tarts exemplified a harmonious blend of flavors and textures. The chocolate and caramel version exposed a secret layer of creamy caramel hiding beneath a rich blanket of dark chocolate, and milk chocolate gelato melted into the most amazing delicate butter crust shell. The decorative nougatine crisp and a gentle sprinkling of fleur de sel added a perfect crunch and a sweet-salty play. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer dessert but the Honey Walnut Tart came close. Another exceptional golden-crusted tart but this time loaded with chopped walnuts in sticky honey. The wafer-thin honey crisp looked like a pair of angel wings gracing the beautiful, milky-white fromage blanc ice cream, which revealed a cheesecake-like flavor while slowly melting into the tart. Heck, I’d make Olivéa a destination for dessert alone and I’m not usually a dessert eater!

Olivéa is indeed an incredible venue, so as you welcome 2011, make sure you take steps to fulfill the resolution to enjoy life a little more. I encourage you to leave the ordinary behind and escape to Olivéa for a true five-star experience, and don’t forget to leave room for dessert!

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