At Olea, It’s All About That Bass

A cut of a European sea bass called Branzino sunned itself on the glinting, clean countertop, as its foodie friends – old and trusted (salt, sliced potatoes, olive oil, cream) and some newer (crispy quinoa, fried capers, rosemary-soaked, flame-licked baby tomatoes) – stood at the ready in small white dishes.

Lucy Gellman PhotoThat cut of fish – so delicate it is rosy and translucent when raw and incredibly flaky, juice pooling at a fork’s tip when cooked – draws Manuel Romero back to a buzzing and hot kitchen day after day.

That and about 20 other fresh menu items that remind him of his childhood in coastal Spain.

As the head chef and co-owner at Olea, the High Street Spanish fusion restaurant that took Ibiza’s place last September, Romero has a deep love for food, and he’s keeping it in New Haven.

“My mother and father cook really good, both of them, and ... I knew when I was nine or ten years old that I wanted to do the culinary arts more than anything else. I used to live right on the coast, and I grew up eating a lot of fish and shellfish. Whenever I eat fish, I have a lot of memories ... I love fishing, cooking, eating it. I remember different stages in life that I was going through,” he said. 

His passion for food – and for his customers – showed through as he prepared the Branzino, known as the loup de mer on the menu.

First he and another chef readied the cauliflower soubise, blending oven-softened cauliflower, heavy cream, and salt before transferring it to a saucepan on the stove.

Then he assembled the ingredients needed to complement the fish: sliced, cooked potatoes, tomatoes, toasted quinoa, and fried capers.

Into the frying pan the veggies went ...

... and out they came to make room for four-minute fish ...

... which was salted, made to sizzle, flipped, and felt for finish ...

... then plated.

Dishes like the loup de mer embrace a trend in Mediterranean fusion that has become Olea’s trademark. Several different parts of the globe make it into the dish: a soubise from France, seabass popular in North Africa, capers and Chianti from Italy, and quinoa from Latin America, where farming it has become both popular and political in the past ten years. Romero credits the leap into a global gastronomy as one of the reasons Olea has done so well in the past few months.

“If people don’t like quail, we have chicken. If they don’t want oxtail, because it might sound a little weird to them, we have beef tenderloin. I always try to have something on the menu that everyone can eat. And I have a few dishes going away from what everybody else does. To be a little bit different.”

He has advice about how to keep a kitchen, too.

One: honor the bass and the salmon, the oxtail, the tenderloin. Soften them with salt and oil, bring them to a sizzling high, and flip them with panache; savor the runoff of marbled fat and sea-tinged olive oil and send the dishes off with glee. 

Two: the kitchen is a crazy, frenetic, sacred space. Value every minute of it.

“What I tell everybody is that this is not the Food Network. This is not a Showtime job. You can have fun, but you need to be there all the time. Be serious. Be ambitious. Put everything you have into it. The better you do things, the happier you are going to be.”

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