For food aristocrats of the old school, the Gotham edition of chef Todd English’s Olives restaurant presents all sorts of aesthetic challenges. First of all, there is the décor, a David Rockwell fantasia of curvy alien-pod light fixtures, moss-colored curtains, and goofy topiaries, wedged in a corner of the lobby of the newly opened W Hotel, on Union Square. On party nights, the lobby turns into an ersatz nightclub, so to get to your table you have to negotiate past bouncer goons with wires running into their ears. The ladies’ room is a Sherpa’s trek away, past the front desk, up a curving flight of stairs. The dining room is a little small for the open kitchen (the art of which English perfected at the original Olives, in the Boston suburb of Charlestown), causing smoky cooking smells to billow over the crowd. My food-aristocrat friend, Ms. Boston, suffered these little indignities with stoic cheer until the end of her quite delicious meal, when a plate of tiny after-dessert petits-fours made with litchi sorbet tipped her over the edge. “Litchi sorbet,” she whispered. “That would never happen back in Boston.”
But then, Todd English ceased being a Boston chef long ago. Since opening the first Olives in 1989, he’s parlayed his “interpretive” style of Mediterranean cuisine into something approaching an international brand. He has three glossy cookbooks to his credit, Olives franchises in glamour spots like Aspen and Las Vegas, plus a string of smaller bistros called Figs. He’s partners with the golfer Greg Norman (in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), and a consultant to the Long John Silver’s seafood chain. His assault on New York has been meticulously planned (the wine list alone took a year to concoct), and he brings to town a reputation for inventive, over-the-top cooking. Along with crafting an artful roster of flatbreads and pastas, English specializes in cupolas of foie gras, pagodas of hanger steak, and pillboxes of tuna tartare with crunchy shrimps buried at the base. When I asked Ms. Boston what Todd English couldn’t do, she adopted the peevish tone of a Boston Red Sox fan discussing Babe Ruth after he became a Yankee. “Anything light,” she said.
Mindful of this warning, I began my explorations over lunch, with a modest helping of lobster-and-black-truffle chowder. The dish looked almost chaste, served in a covered porcelain bowl, but when you took the lid off, the air filled with the rich, woody smell of truffles. The cream was leavened with a delicate seafood reduction, and the lobster hid a dollop of olive-oil mashed potatoes, which thickened the soup as you got to the bottom. Next came a lamb sandwich, which wasn’t really a sandwich at all but a smorgasbord of Middle Eastern&-style treats (whipped hummus, cucumber raita, chickpeas) arrayed with slices of marinated lamb on a crispy zataar flatbread. Neither of these dishes is on the dinner menu, but they’re both worth a special trip during the day. Ditto the Vichy mussels (loaded with tiny cubes of chorizo), the grilled hanger steak (draped on top of parsley fries and stalks of rosemary frizzled with Parmesan), and the fried-rouget sandwich, a dissertation on the sinful pleasures of well-fried food.
Chef English has an artist’s knack for layering simple textures and tastes. On the dinner menu, this talent is most apparent in the appetizers, several of which were worth the price of the whole meal. My favorite was a small square of beef tartare decked with a quail egg and shavings of black truffle and served with giant toast points on a bed of olive-oil mashed potatoes. My friend the octopus nut gave two thumbs up to the grilled squid and octopus covered in a vinaigrette mingled with chickpeas, garlic, and bits of char from the grill. Ms. Boston seemed satisfied with her light artichoke salad (perched atop a crackly risotto cake) and spoke approvingly of the seared Nantucket Bay scallops, whose sweet, almost fruity taste was offset by smoky bits of bacon and balls of crisp semolina gnocchi. Every one of chef English’s five “hand-crafted” pastas was good (try the tortelli of butternut squash, with a dusting of crumbled amaretto cookies), and duck-liver freaks will go bonkers over his feathery, baby-food-like foie gras flan.
Many of these dishes share a kind of elemental richness, which seems to work better in small doses. On some of the more elaborate dinner entrées, you can sense the chef furrowing his brow, grasping for combinations that will make a big splash. My filet of Dover sole was carpet-bombed with foie gras, and a perfectly good cut of Chilean sea bass arrived muffled in a weirdly elephantine crust of portobello mushrooms. The maple-and-soy-lacquered salmon tasted overlacquered to me, and didn’t mesh with an accompanying mass of white-bean stew. A few of the big meat dishes, like the rack of venison and a slow-braised veal osso buco, seemed strangely subdued, although the rack of lamb, when I ordered it a second time, was perfectly charred. Among seafood dishes, my favorite was the wood-grilled sunshine bass (served with the tail on, amid a ring of lardons and morsels of lobster), while the traditionalists at my table vouched for the simple herb-and-garlic-roasted chicken, which was bathed in an extravagant poultry jus.
There’s a copious, first-class wine list to complement all this grub, although my glass of Greg Norman Cabernet Sauvignon&-Merlot mix cost $12, which is exactly one dollar less than the price of an entire bottle at your local Costco. The desserts were cheaper than that, but not by much. If your main course hasn’t put you in a food coma, try the peppermint bombe, a disc of creamy chocolate with a lucent, minty sauce inside. Light eaters will enjoy the cone of passion-fruit flan, but my personal favorite was the oven-roasted pineapple, a quirky, horizontal construction of pineapple slivers, lime sorbet, and coconut cake, sprinkled with frizzled bits of kaffir lime. It’s on the lunch menu, too, so you don’t have to battle the frantic nighttime hordes to get a taste of it. Which isn’t such a bad thing, in the end. The menu is simpler and less showy at lunch. You can sit at the bar after a bowl of the lobster chowder and watch the sun pour in from the open sky over Union Square. Squint your eyes a little if you’re an old Todd English fan, and you might even feel like you’re back in Boston.
Todd English’s Olives NY
Union Square W Hotel, 201 Park Avenue South (212-353-8345). Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Mon.&-Fri. 7 a.m.&-11 p.m., Sat.&-Sun. 10 a.m.&-11 p.m. Appetizers, $10.25 to $16; entrées, $23 to $30. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.