Boston’s Todd English Extends Olives Branch to Union Square

Although it was a Monday night when I went to Olives in the new W New York Union Square hotel, the place was packed and our table wasn’t ready. But the hostess, who was extremely sweet and even rather flirtatious, directed us to the bar, where she offered us drinks on the house. My friends were impressed by such friendly treatment, perhaps because they’d just come back from Paris. Their flight from Charles de Gaulle had been delayed, so they had passed the time in, of all places, a first-rate bistro.

“Can you imagine enjoying a good steak frites and a decent bottle of wine in an airport in New York?” asked my friend

In fact, Todd English, chef and owner of Olives, opened a branch of Figs at LaGuardia last fall. Instead of steak frites, his casual restaurant serves mostly pizza, including one made with prosciutto and figs that’s such a hit, he put a version on the menu at Olives. We tried it: You bite down into slices of warm prosciutto, then into a layer of sweet-and-sour fig jam made with chunks of fruit, followed by soft, melted gorgonzola, and finish up with a thin, rosemary-flecked flatbread crust. It’s enough to make you not care if you miss your connection (and given LaGuardia’s reputation for delays, you already have).

Olives opened in November in a 1911 Renaissance-revival landmark building (formerly Guardian Life) whose two-story-high windows overlook the northern tip of Union Square. When you walk in through a wood-paneled lobby, where the steps of the sweeping staircase are decorated with little clumps of fake grass at the corners, you come across the sort of hectic cocktail scene that has become the neighborhood’s signature. You have to fight your way to the reservation desk, brushing past people perched on sofas and mingling three deep at the bar (there’s another bar downstairs, which was filling up by the time we left). David Rockwell’s whimsical decor includes, among other details, giant wreaths, displays of catkins, glowing gold bulbs hanging like pods on curved wrought-iron stalks and a stuffed rooster. The room is at its best at night, when the light is soft and the tables are set with small candles in boxes made of bronze netting. The restaurant is separated from the bar by a banquette with horizontal wooden slats across the top; opposite is an open kitchen behind a frosted-glass panel through which you can see a giant rotisserie and the cooks at work. From time to time, Mr. English himself comes out and looks around the dining room. He’s here! A celebrity chef who’s actually in the kitchen!

Mr. English, who is from Boston, owns an empire of restaurants (over a dozen nationwide, not to mention the one in Israel that’s hired him as a consultant), has published several cookbooks and has a television series. (It doesn’t hurt that he has the sort of chiseled good looks you’d expect to see in a Calvin Klein ad.) When you taste his particular brand of robust, rustic cooking–which he calls “interpretive Mediterranean cuisine”–you know that he is passionate about food. It’s hard not to fill up right away on the oiled chunks of foccacia and grilled bread that are set down on the table, along with a bowl of green and black olives and green tapenade, as you consult the first-rate wine list.

Charred octopus and squid were tossed with chickpeas and simply seasoned with lots of lemon, garlic and parsley. The ingredients had so much flavor, I felt like I was eating on a Mediterranean beach. A salad of shredded raw artichokes was heaped on a fontina-risotto cake and surrounded by rings of three sauces: an ivory Parmesan cream, a green-gray artichoke “silk” (a blend of the meaty parts of the leaves mixed with olive oil) and bright green basil oil. A powerful black-truffle vinaigrette coated the artichokes, which were topped with wide slivers of black truffle, like the bow on a dowager’s bonnet. It was a truly great dish. Mr. English also loves to wrap and stuff his ingredients, such as a tartare of tuna, flavored with sesame, ginger and a hint of Vietnamese chili paste, that was encased in ribbons of cucumber.

Once in a while he reaches too far, like with the scallops wrapped in bacon and glazed with English mustard, served with a cauliflower tartlet and sliced apple. I see the connections he’s making here, but they don’t work. Curiously, another scallop dish that sounded even more baroque was brilliant. Seared scallops were glazed with maple syrup and vinegar, served with a thyme-flecked hazelnut butter and a delicate pumpkin-semolina purée and garnished with pieces of orange. Cacciucco, the Livornese fish stew, was given a new twist, setting a plump fillet of sturgeon upon a crostini raft in a saffron-white wine broth made with roast tomatoes, fennel and mussels.

Mr. English’s pasta dishes were subtle and light. A bowl of pappardelle with polpette (veal meatballs) was topped with whole mushrooms, fried sage leaves and tangy pecorino cheese. Ragu of braised veal and roasted tomato acted as a sharp counterpoint to the soft, almost sweet artichoke filling in plump mezzaluna (half moons).

The juicy, charcoal-broiled hanger steak arrived with a knotted heap of wonderful parsley fries, sprinkled with Parmesan and studded with cloves of roasted garlic. Rack of lamb was seasoned with Lebanese zataar (a spice blend made with sesame seeds, sumac and thyme) and roasted on rosemary branches. As if this wasn’t enough, it came with a braised lamb-shank pot pie, also with Middle Eastern leanings: a copper pot held phyllo layered with sheep’s milk ricotta, spinach and eggplant glazed with pinenut butter and tahini. A hunk of tender beef short ribs with bones of Mesozoic proportion looked like a dish for a Renaissance cardinal, flavored with a blood-red essence of beet juice and nutmeg and served with roasted beets (a tad underseasoned), polenta with walnuts and Gorgonzola cream. This is not spa cuisine, but the food has so much flavor you can’t hold back.

Pastry chef Lincoln Carson’s desserts were inventive and full of fantasy. They included a refreshing peppermint bombé with curlicues of chocolate on top, and a crunchy caramel Napoleon with banana cream, hazelnuts and chocolate sorbet. Twin molten cakes, served in a shallow bowl with milk chocolate and manjari (a type of Valrhona chocolate) ice creams, were pleasant, but not a patch on the oven-roasted pineapple, which were presented like kebabs, with paper-thin slices of fruit alternating with scoops of coconut-lime sorbet. At the end of dinner, instead of petits fours, we were served chocolate and caramel popsicles.

For New Yorkers who’ve tired of oversophisticated cooking, Olives offers the sort of gutsy, rustic food that I, for one, love to eat.

Olives New York

* * *

W New York Union Square

201 Park Avenue South

353-8345

Dress: Downtown chic

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Excellent

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch, $12.50 to $30; dinner, $26.50 to $30

Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. To 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor