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Fig & Olive: Fresh & Original

Fig & Olive’s got a groove that distinguishes it from the crowd of fairly over-priced and popular Mediterranean joints that pepper the island of Manhattan. Despite being a chainlet (with locations in midtown, the UES, and Meatpacking), it oozes intimacy and consistently churns out quality food. It has focus (figs and olives/olive oil, duh), which so many restaurants, no matter how good, do not.

I checked out the Upper East Side outpost, and what a surprise it ended up being. I expected a restaurant that felt fabricated (as many ‘chainlets’ do) and forced. Instead, I found a slinky subterranean space with a long wooden bar, a tall marble communal table, soft white light, and colorful photographs of fruits & vegetables. The long narrow space somehow felt almost airy, despite the cramped quarters.

The Mediterranean menu transports you to an olive grove on a Grecian island dappled with sunlight. It is refreshing and light, concentrated on cheeses, grains, fresh fish preparations, salads, vegetables, and nuts. Each dish is paired with a complimentary artisan olive oil, and upon sitting down, you are offered an olive oil flight with your bread basket. This is no off-the-shelf-at-Gristede’s olive oil – it is expensive, light, and amazingly diverse. Offering four carpaccio dishes (zucchini, ahi tuna, beef, and veal), crostinis, a charcuterie & cheese ballot, over-stuffed salads, pastas, a mixed grill, and various other entrees, Fig & Olive offers something for everyone from vegetarian to pescatarian to meat-lover.

My friend Dan and I split the ahi tuna carpaccio. Served with cilantro, arugula, toasted sesame oil, tomato, and an 18-year balsamic vinaigrette, it was immensely flavorful, meaty, and fresh. The crunchy nuts and smooth ultra-thin slices of fish were texturally wonderful, and the entire dish was just plain addictive. We then both opted for an entree from the grill menu. He went for the grilled branzino with fig and balsamic vinaigrette, and I couldn’t say no to the grilled lamb skewers with couscous, figs, Greek yogurt, honey, and scallion. Both were succulent and well-cooked with a hint of crispy char and lots of punch. The grilled branzino had a crispy skin that brought out the real flavor of the fish and a soft delicate ‘underbelly’ of fish meat. Doused in balsamic vinaigrette, the dish was just bursting of flavors. Similarly, my grilled lamb skewers, while unfortunately difficult to eat gracefully, were meaty and juicy with a slight smoky char. The couscous was the real winner though when mixed with the Greek yogurt and honey – marvelous!

Fig & Olive is soft and elegant. It by no means feels like either a bland chain restaurant or an uppity New York ‘chain.’ Instead, Fig & Olive keeps it simple with what it knows, figs and olives, and boy, do they know them well. Perfect for a family meal or long lingering dinner with friends, Fig & Olive offers a relaxed and sophisticated backdrop for a damn good Mediterranean meal.

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