San Francisco Chronicle

Dining Out: Menu takes surprise turns at Olea

Amanda Gold, Chronicle Staff Writer  |  Wednesday, January 23, 2008

There is nothing groundbreaking about cooking with local and seasonal ingredients these days - it's practically required for any new, trendy restaurant in Northern California.

But it's always refreshing to find a hidden neighborhood spot that's passionate about following the same practices. Sourcing ingredients this way takes effort, knowledge, and often more funds, and at Olea, on the edge of San Francisco's Nob Hill, chef Gabriel Amaya proves that you needn't be a disciple of a Chez Panisse-type caliber restaurant to craft a menu with a similar philosophy.

Amaya and co-owner Glen Bolosan were essentially unknown in the restaurant world before opening their 3-month-old restaurant in the tiny space that used to house the Red Door. It quickly has become a beacon of warmth on an otherwise dreary street corner.

To enter, diners push through the split door and descend three steps into what looks like an L-shaped foyer hugging an open kitchen. Bare cream walls with dark sage wainscoting create the impression of a modern country home. Larger groups can sit at the long table on one side of the room, with just four to five smaller tables across the way. The restaurant seats only 26, which allows Amaya to create a relatively short, periodically changing menu using high-quality ingredients.

Where many restaurants lean heavily toward starters, Olea offers only three and focuses more on entrees. Amaya takes chances in the kitchen with unorthodox combinations, which either work surprisingly well or not at all.

The best dish over the course of three visits was an appetizer of caramelized chicory, seedless grapes and gran queso cheese ($8.25), doused in olive oil and served with a cracker-crisp flatbread. It's an unexpected grouping, but one that works beautifully with every taste represented - sweet grapes, nutty cheese similar to Manchego, bitter greens and salt-dusted flatbread. It's perfect for grazing at the start of the meal.

On the other hand, a salmon entree ($18.50) that sets a fillet over black-eyed peas with parsnips and carrots would have been fine had Amaya stopped there. Instead, it was blanketed with chopped Marcona almonds and awash in a cinnamon-scented, murky brown butter, which were jarring against the fish.

The other two appetizers work as well as the flatbread. One is more traditional, a seasonal salad ($8.50) of curly lettuces with baby chioggia beets and goat cheese.

The other is a more inventive mix of seared scallops ($14.50) atop a heady chickpea puree. Ruby slices of blood orange provide a welcome infusion of citrus.

Because of the small space, it's rare to find more than one or two servers working on any given night, which can mean longer waits between courses.

However, servers take a familiar approach without being overly casual, giving a taste of wine to someone deciphering the short but esoteric wine list, or offering suggestions for standout entrees, like the juicy, pan-roasted pork chop ($17). Cooked to an enticing blush pink, the meat is enhanced by a tangy Dijon sauce and set over an earthy celery root puree.

The duck breast ($18.50), though a disappointingly small portion, is still worth ordering, fanned in slices alternating with sweet poached quince. A square cake of potatoes and leeks has slightly too much white pepper, but otherwise works.

Other entrees sounded tempting, but were not executed as well.

The slow-cooked corona beans ($11.50), for example, form the base of the only vegetarian entree, mixed with chewy farro, kale and sesame seeds in a vegetable broth. The combination was bland.

The chicken ($14.50) also proved flavorless, even though it sat in a pool of mint-infused tomato sauce and wheat berries.

And while the side dishes of roasted delicata squash and crisp potato wedges that accompany the hanger steak ($17.50) are good, the meat itself was tough.

Amaya turns out two homemade desserts (both $7.50) as well. The best choice is a gateau Breton, cake that's more like a thick, dense sugar cookie. Scattered with boozy amareno cherries and served with a scoop of mild cinnamon ice cream, it's a decadent treat. The other option is a wedge featuring alternating layers of chocolate and walnut cheesecake, capped with a caramelized sugar shell.

Or, simply sit and linger over a cup of Blue Bottle coffee, yet another indication that despite a few kitchen missteps, Olea hasn't missed a stop on the trend train.

 

RATINGS KEY

FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor

$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25

ONE BELL = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels); TWO BELLS = Can talk easily (65-70); THREE BELLS = Talking normally gets difficult (70-75); FOUR BELLS = Can talk only in raised voices (75-80); BOMB = Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)

Prices are based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings. Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All meals are paid for by The Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit.

Reviewers: Michael Bauer (M.B.), Tara Duggan (T.D.), Mandy Erickson (M.E.), Amanda Gold (A.G.), Miriam Morgan (M.M.), Carol Ness (C.N.), Karola Saekel (K.M.S.), Jennifer Tomaro (J.T.) and Olivia Wu (O.W.)

 

Olea

1494 California St. (at Larkin Street), San Francisco; (415) 202-8521.

Dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sun., Tues-Thurs., until 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., brunch 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Difficult street parking.

Overall

Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS

Food

Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS

Service

Rating: TWO STARS

Atmosphere

Rating: TWO STARS

Prices

$$

Noise Rating

Noise Rating: TWO BELLS

Pluses: Unexpected combinations can be delicious, like the chicory with grapes, gran queso cheese and flatbread. Servers are knowledgeable and familiar.

Minuses: Waits can be long between courses. Some dishes, like the salmon, don't work.

Amanda Gold is a Chronicle staff writer. Visit sfgate.com/ food for comprehensive restaurant reviews and listings.

This article appeared on page F - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle