By Emily Monaco | Reporting from New York
At least among my fellow New Yorkers, the meatpacking district has the reputation of being painfully hip, with an emphasis on painful. With long lines and snooty waiters, a dinner out can feel more like an ordeal of back-to-back “learning experiences” than what it’s meant to be — a meal.
Fortunately, I felt none of this at 9th Avenue hot spot Fig and Olive. Entering the giant dining room with its high ceilings, low lighting, vaguely ethnic music and minimal décor (olives and figs abound, of course, with bottles of olive oil and plants in terracotta pots mounted on the wall), Fig and Olive could seem like just another meatpacking trend. But here the service is genuine, and thankfully so is the food.
My dining companion (my mother) running late, the hostess sent me to the bar with a casual, friendly smile.
“Of course! Go on ahead,” she said, waving me towards the long bar that takes up the entire center of the restaurant. I pulled up a stool and perused the cocktail selection which was purposefully minimal—just the way I like it. I listened in on conversations going on around me, surprised to discover that the bar here was somewhat of a local haunt, a place where residents of the trendy meatpacking district meet up for an after dinner drink and a bar snack. Gourmet crostini, assorted Mediterranean olives and cheese platters are just some of the options.
After debating several choices, I ordered a raspberry bellini. The barmaid served it with a smile—my second brush with niceness since arriving that had me looking forward to what was to come. Later, my sister would come back with me and order the nicois olive martini, the signature drink of the restaurant. I’m not a martini fan, but she claims it’s the best she’s ever had, and she knows her dirty martinis.
Mom arrived, and we were brought to a table where we were quickly offered a selection of three different olive oils in a separated dish. The bread was plain, which made it much easier to taste the characteristics of the oils, which came from differentregions and contrasted in both flavor and color. My favorite was the Frantoio from Australia with a gleaming, bright emerald color. The waitress informed us of apple notes that were immediately apparent. The aroma was fresh, green and fruity. I would mix another—a buttery, smooth Tunisian extra virgin known as Chemlali—with the 18-year old balsamic vinegar that accompanied the fresh mozzarella and tomato platter. If you want to taste heaven on bread, this is it. These extra virgins and many others are sold by the Fig and Olive store, alongside some of the infused oils and aged vinegars that were used in some of the dishes throughout the meal. Fig and Olive has frequent olive oil tastings and they’ll even offer guidance for hosting your own tasting at home.
Executive chef Pascal Lorange’s menu is laid out with several small bites and appetizers on the first page, almost tapas-style, with French, Italian and Spanish influences. The rest of the menu features roasted and grilled meats, fresh fish and signature salads, all expertly paired with an extra virgin olive oil or fine vinegar. The namesake Fig and Olive salad is dressed with an 18-year balsamic while the Penne Funghi Tartufo is drizzled with truffle-flavored olive oil.
We split a selection of crostini from the long list that included shrimp and avocado, roasted pepper and goat cheese, boquerones and tomatoes, truffle and mushroom, prosciutto, ricotta and fig, and fig, manchego and almond. They were served atop thin toast as opposed to the usual baguette rounds, which makes it much easier to taste the elements in each little bite. The crostini were excellent: the shrimp and avocado was slightly lackluster compared to some of the other selections, and I would have preferred a more concentrated mushroom flavor in the truffle and mushroom crostini, which seemed to be prepared with raw mushrooms, though the truffle oil shone through brilliantly. The boquerones were stellar, as was the fig and prosciutto, which held the perfect balance between sweet and savory. The fig and manchego would have been my favorite if it didn’t seem better suited to a dessert course than an appetizer, but it was delicious nonetheless.
For a main, I stuck to the appetizers, a decision I recommend to those looking for dishes that showcase the variety of flavors possible with such an outstanding selection of olive oils. I chose to order the ceviche and tartare sampler, while my mother ordered the rosemary olive oil roasted chicken with olive oil mashed potatoes. My dish arrived with four small bowls, each containing a small amount of one of the four that had been listed: salmon mojo and avocado, branzino cherry tomato with orange, sesame tuna and shrimp with lemon. It was the perfect selection for someone like me, who can make a meal out of tapas, and even my mother tried the shrimp and lemon ceviche, although she mostly contented herself with the succulent roast chicken. It took me until the very last bites to decide which one was my favorite—the branzino. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly.
For dessert, I had to try the olive oil gelato—I had used olive oils in cakes before, but as an ice cream flavor, it was new to me. By this point, my mother was feeling more adventurous, and she dipped her spoon in as well. Topped simply with supremed oranges and orange zest, the dessert was the perfect end to our meal—not too sweet, with just the fruity essence of the olive oil showing through.
Fig and Olive is the ideal of what a trendy, small plates restaurant should be. The focus is on the ingredients—as well it should be. Fig and Olive chooses carefully from local growers or directly from the Mediterranean to showcase an ingredient—an oil, a particular fish, a sweet, perfectly ripened fig—not a style of cooking. The restaurant offers recipes for many of its dishes that can be made at home for just this reason: these are not dishes that require a lot of culinary know-how or even specialty kitchen tools. In fact, by purchasing your olive oils and vinegars from the Fig and Olive store, many dishes can come together in just a few minutes. What Fig and Olive does, it does well. I’m pleased to say I’ve already been back, and I have plans to return again.
FIG & OLIVE
420 West 13th Street
Between Ninth Ave.
& Washington St.
New York, NY 10014
Tel: (212) 924-1200