Trading Spaces

Making it Over: The newly revamped dining room at Olica.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Since most restaurateurs are fashion victims, like the rest of us, the complete, full-body makeover is a formidable undertaking, fraught with all sorts of anxiety and peril. The greatest dining establishments age gracefully, of course, like rich dowagers, without a seeming care in the world. The vast majority of restaurants, however, undergo internal makeovers all the time, whether it’s with new chefs in the kitchen or a choice of new lighting fixtures behind the bar. It’s rare, though, to find a restaurant brave or desperate enough to change its appearance, its menu, and its name simultaneously. It’s rarer still when this operation is a success, although that is what seems to have happened at Olica, the newly renamed, redesigned, and gastronomically retooled establishment that not so long ago was called L’Actuel, on East 50th Street, off the lobby of the Kimberly Hotel.

L’Actuel was a sleekly modest, upscale brasserie, but the newly gussied-up Olica (it’s the names of the two co-owners’ daughters, Olivia and Camille, combined) aims higher than that. It wants to be a destination restaurant in the mold of the other great Francophile grandes dames farther uptown. To this end, a colorful but strange planting of wheatgrass has been placed in the center of the room, and the walls have been hung with folds of gauzy white chiffon. The dinner plates come in eye-catching shapes and sizes, and the light fixtures are covered with pointy red Le Cirque–style shades, which look like flaming carrots or inverted goblin hats. The wines are visible behind modish sheets of wire mesh, and, as with any self-respecting destination joint, there’s a glossy book of the resident chef’s favorite recipes available for purchase at the bar.

That resident chef is Jean-Yves Schillinger, the inventive Alsatian gentleman who also ran the kitchen at L’Actuel. Schillinger has kept a few recipes from the old days, like two very delicious varieties of tarte flambée (try the tuna-and-wasabi), plus a cooling tartare made with glistening bits of salmon, quail egg, and Osetra caviar. The best of his new appetizer inventions include a trio of gently seared tuna tournedos flavored with sesame and mustard sauce, and a smooth, mint-colored asparagus soup, ladled over a single poached egg. They were followed to the table by an appropriately dense foie gras torchon crusted with black-pepper jelly, and a mass of chewy fettuccine (folded with asparagus, morels, and truffle oil), which in its richness and heft could easily have passed for an entrée.

With a few exceptions, the main courses at Olica exhibited a similar combination of inventive style and classical technique. On my first visit, I bolted down a hefty, very unsummery portion of crispy seared sweetbreads in a lobster emulsion, then picked at my tablemate’s piece of perfectly cooked salmon set in a pool of the greenest herb sauce. The seared scallops were delicious though overpriced ($30 for four); the sea bass was dunked in a slippery sauce flavored with lemongrass, among other disparate ingredients. Both the seared cod (with olives and garlic mashed potatoes) and the John Dory (served with a sweet tomato-and-caper sauce and shrimps covered in a sesame crust) were quite fine. Among more hefty items, however, the chicken breast, set atop a pedestal of couscous, tasted unaccountably of mint syrup, and the beef tournedos I sampled were flavorful but a little dry.

On the evenings I dined there, the eclectic crowd at Olica included several uptown gentlemen wearing natty blue banker’s suits, a Sutton Place matriarch with a black eye patch, and a young Lubavitcher couple on what looked to be a blind date. The Lubavitchers were in Olica’s snappy new bar area and never made their way into the dining room to sample the solid selection of desserts. Instead of a single crème brûlée, pastry chef Raphaël Sutter has cooked up five different flavors (vanilla being the best, basil by far the worst) served in little cups. There’s also a classic rendition of tarte aux pommes and three decent chocolate options, the best of which is the Dôme, a cooling, bittersweet confection shot through with apple marmalade. Like many things about Olica, it’s a dish that won’t need a makeover anytime soon.

Olica, 145 East 50th Street (212-583-0001). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m., dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $8–$17; entrées, $23–$30. All major credit cards.

Trading Spaces