The olive tree and its sacred limbs are rooted in Mediterranean tradition; they symbolize friendship, peace and victory. So nothing could be more fitting to serve as inspiration for an extraordinary O.C. restaurant mogul who is making his mark. Yes, Russ Bendel has opened Olea, his third local outpost and first in Newport Beach, and it’s already living up to its legacy.
Named for a genus of olive tree, Olea is a rustic space that evokes the bucolic beauty of wine country with a sleek square bar, pine tree beams from Oregon and the earnest feel of an intimate, community hot spot. The natural aesthetic is matched by superb food and hospitality, trademarks of Bendel’s other establishments, Vine and Ironwood (and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, where he served as operating partner, before that). He hails from a family of restaurateurs, and he excels at cultivating his loyal team: chef and partner Jared Cook, a rising star from the Pacific Northwest, and mixologist Gabe Whorley, a San Clemente native whose signature style is whimsical yet focused on reviving the classics. I’m certain all of that will keep you coming back for more.
Venture into the dinner-only concept, and you’ll experience a menu that encompasses comforting faves and inventive tastes. For starters, embark on an epicurean journey with the chef’s from-scratch terrine of duck liver, bacon and bourbon. It’s an outrageously delectable spread served with toasted ciabatta, cornichons for an acidic bite and a bevy of mustards for contrast. The cocktails make a fantastic complement: Sip a Jorge Lucas—Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila stirred with smoky mezcal, lime, serrano and angostura bitters. Or get addicted (like I did) to the Rich Girl, a blend of rosé, vodka, lime, yuzu and basil, with a floating shaved ice snow cone for a playful touch. The wine list offers global pairings; Austrian Grüners, German rieslings, and California and Oregon labels round out the lineup. Craft beers from near and far grace the catalog too, providing myriad options for impeccable unions, no matter the dish.
Do not overlook the exclusive blue crab-baked oysters with Champagne tarragon butter. They’re creamy and decadent, with melted garlic and smoked bacon for an aphrodisiac combo of balance and umami. The fried green tomatoes with burrata are mainstays at Olea’s sister spots and absolute winners. They’re finished with hazelnut romesco and serrano chicharrones as a twist on the Southern staple and an example of Cook’s ability to meld flavor with finesse.
When it comes to entrees, the restaurant presents a few new concoctions that set it apart from the other eateries in its family. The herb-roasted prime beef-cheek stroganoff is divinely succulent: Tender meat is layered with cipollini onion, maitake and oyster mushrooms in a charred scallion creme fraiche sauce, and served with homemade rosemary pappardelle. The zinfandel-braised lamb shank is my supreme choice for large plates—fall-off-the-bone goodness with zero gaminess, complemented by tangy feta and minted yogurt. And the wild-caught North Pacific sea bass is not to be missed. On my most recent visit, the fish was set atop caramelized potatoes with raisins, capers, pistachios and roasted cauliflower florets. It’s the epitome of a satisfying seafood dish with pizazz.
Desserts are limited, but the seasonal cobbler (for me, a blend of apple, pear and blueberry) is tremendous, accompanied by a not-big-enough scoop of cardamom-scented honey ice cream—a final taste from a restaurant that’s hard not to rave about. I think you’ll agree: The fruits of Bendel’s labor are present everywhere at Olea, and I can’t think of a bigger victory for Newport Beach.
2001 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, 949.287.6807
Starters, $12-$23.50; salads and soup, $8.50-$12; entrees, $16-$43; sides, $6-$8; desserts, $9.50-$10
Dinner Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm and Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm