Tuesday, March 25, 2008


72 Madison Ave (27th/28th)

Olana welcomes you in. Plush red velvet chairs and cozy booths beckon you to sit down and stay a while. Expansive artwork adorns the upper walls, painted in the style of Frederic Edwin Church, a member of the Hudson River School from whose Columbia-County house and estate the restaurant takes its name. The wait staff is attentive, knowledgeable, and personable. Olana is the pretty girl who appears to have everything going for her (without engendering the pesky inner conflict of wanting to hate her)...but can she deliver substance to boot? Let’s have a taste.

We began with the Cauliflower Soup, which was poured atop a bowl of cheddar flan, mushrooms, and spiced almonds. Cheddar and cauliflower are a classic, comforting pair, and the almonds raise the hearty dish beyond the norm to make it special. The Mâche and Beet Salad was served with crispy sheep Brie, candied hazelnuts, pancetta, and tarragon vinaigrette. The saltiness of the pancetta and the Brie cut right through the sweetness of the beets and the nuts, making them a perfect match.

Being nearly virginal on the Sea Urchin Consumption Scale (SUCS), we asked our server about the creature’s inclusion in Olana’s risotto. He informed us that sea urchin isn’t fishy per se, but that it is definitely “of the sea.” That was enough to dissuade me, but my companion plunged ahead. I decided to order the Veal and Ricotta Cappellacci, presented with Sicilian pistachios, Grana Padano cheese, and roasted tomato sauce. The dish comprised pinwheels of delicate, homemade pasta, wrapped around the cheese and ground meat. The freshness of the ingredients combined as a harmonious whole that was gently filling without overwhelming. The much-considered risotto, which included king crab, copious slices of black truffle, and frothy truffle cream alongside the sea urchin, ended up being delightful, even to my fishiness-sensitive palate. It was definitely oceanic, just as our server had described, but he hadn’t been sugar-coating his description in order to make it sound better than it was, as waiters often do. How refreshing! The risotto was richly redolent of not only the aquatic, but the earthy as well, and was thus unexpectedly all-encompassing. We were not disappointed.

I’m a sucker for fillings inside doughy wrappers (dumplings, blintzes, pierogies), and so the Sambuca Chocolate Crêpes called to me. The idea of licorice and chocolate together, however, turned me away. Our waiter insisted that the Sambuca was subtle, and since he had, up until then, only steered us right, I gave it a go. Never before had I seen a chocolate crêpe whose pancake was itself dark and chocolatey. Aside from the visual impact next to a splash of raspberry coulis, this added intensity to the flavors, already well supported by the Valrhona pudding within and the cocoa nib ice cream on the side. And the Sambuca was, indeed, a mere whisper. Delicious. The pastry of the Rhubarb Strudel that my companion ordered was flaky and perfect.

So, what’s the verdict? Can pretty-girl Olana carry on a conversation? Can she talk politics and literature, listen to your problems and make you laugh? Irrefutably, all of the above. But act fast, fellas; she won’t be available for long.

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