Located thousands of miles apart, Orange County and the French Riviera are two alluring regions celebrated for their luxurious resorts, haute culture, agreeable climate and azure coastline. Newport Beach Fig & Olive restaurant bridges the gap, bringing a modern interpretation on traditional Mediterranean flavor to Fashion Island. With Chef de Cuisine Carlos Lool as the guide, I embark on a much-anticipated culinary journey, exploring the array of newly introduced items and established menu favorites.
I’ve never been to the south coast of France, but as I take my seat in the expansive dining area, the architectural style suggests a beauty and elegance that I have only seen in photos. A white marble fireplace rises in the center of the room, drawing the eye to thick wooden beams that frame the airy space. Grand windows take the place of walls and planters filled with aromatic herbs line the edges, creating the illusion of being outdoors, even with the gentle presence of heat on the back of my neck. Guests are seated at spread out tables around the open room, lounging comfortably against the cushions on their white wicker chairs, basking in the relaxed ambiance.
Our server starts us off with a plate of delicious light rosemary focaccia bread and a selection of three full-bodied olive oils, a fundamental element used in all dishes but dessert at Fig & Olive. A refreshing sparkling wine, complete with fresh strawberry serves to quench my thirst and cleanse the palate as our first course arrives.
A plate of six crostini, each its own colorful work of art, stacked high with fresh and unfamiliar ingredients. My curiosity only grows as I hear their descriptions. Kabocha squash, pickled mushroom, pear; Burrata, balsamic, tomato, pesto; Octopus, hummus, pimento; Gorgonzola, apple, red pepper marmalade; every one more innovative and enticing than the last. My personal favorite combines a subdued tanginess of goat cheese with a more overtly sweet vinegar profile of caramelized onions, textured nicely with crisp chives.
COMPLETE LIST OF NEW ITEMS
Fig Gorgonzola Tartlet | prosciutto, walnut, arugula, scallion, tomato on thin puff pastry
Nicoise Salad | romaine lettuce, tuna, green & yellow beans, red pepper, quail egg, potato with bagna dressing
Provencal Crusted Scallop Linguine | red wine tomato sauce, olive-caper crusted scallops
Branzino a la Plancha | haricot vert, yellow wax beans, roasted potato, green harissa sauce
Chilean Sea Bass | roasted sunchoke, rapini, romesco-mascarpone sauce with almond & hazelnut
Rosemary Lamb Chops | ricotta gnocchi, braised honey eggplant
For my appetizer, I opt for the Octopus Gallega, an assortment of fingerling potatoes, olives, and succulent rounds of octopus dressed with pimenton and a dash of citrus. Any prior inhibitions should be thrown out, as the meat is neither chewy nor fishy, but absolutely tender and delicious. My plus one goes a different route, ordering the new Fig Gorgonzola Tartlet. Don’t’ be fooled by its diminutive name; it is quite the healthy portion. A thin flaky pastry forms the stage for a flavorsome performance, sweet fruitiness and salty prosciutto play off one another and tomato, and scallion adds depth to the consistency, while the earthy notes of walnut and arugula keep everything balanced.
My taste buds are dazzled by the slew of novel flavors, but the meal is hitting its stride with the appearance of the main courses. I find myself hungrily gazing at a gorgeous piece of beef, the Grilled Hickory Hanger Steak, seared black on the outside and cooked to perfection inside. Rapini, broccoli’s lesser-know cousin, and garlic confit counter the sweet barbecue with savory bitterness, on top of a romesco sauce with a little bite to it. Next to me is the Kabocha Squash Risotto, a hearty blend of Parmesan, sage, and a subtly sweet and smoky roasted kabocha.
The conversation is flowing, and the upbeat music reflects on the surrounding happy, satisfied faces. For those with room left, as I somehow miraculously do, dessert is a welcome, saccharine finale. The Caramelized Apple Tart or the Chestnut Mousse, there are no wrong decisions. As I dig into the layered cherry sorbet and bits of walnut meringue, I appreciate its deliciousness for what it is – the proverbial cherry on top, or in this case, the one at the bottom.
The evening was a successful celebration of tradition and invention, a heartfelt meal where the direction and passion of Chef Lool was on display in every dish. Fig & Olive worked wonders with the seasonal and sustainable ingredients that embody their identity, delivering a night I won’t soon forget.