Trendy Midtown Brasserie Gets Serious

Olica sounds more like a brand of margarine than a French restaurant. The name, which is part of the makeover of the midtown brasserie formerly known as L’Actuel, is a combination of the names of the two daughters of co-owner Christophe Lhopitault. Earlier this year, Mr. Lhopitault and chef Jean-Yves Schillinger decided to redo the place entirely, changing not just the name but the food and décor as well. It was a risky venture (particularly when weighted down with a lumbering name like Olica), but the gamble has paid off.

L’Actuel tried so very hard to be trendy: With its seafood bar, “French” tapas, pizza, cheese platters, stews served in tajins, cocktail tables made of stone, Japanese lanterns and bar stools covered in suede, it was a veritable compendium of the latest hits in restaurant design and fare. I liked the food, especially the pizzas, but not enough that I ever went back, particularly given the restaurant’s location: a small

hotel called the Kimberly, on a dreary block just east of Lexington Avenue. If the restaurant belonged anywhere, it was in the meatpacking district.

Now the brasserie theme has been dropped, and the place has turned itself into a serious restaurant. You walk through a warm red bar and lounge into the dining room, which is softly lit and quirkily decorated. It has high ceilings, and the back wall is covered by white chiffon curtains that hang down in folds like rows of diapers. On the left are two gigantic wine cabinets with steel mesh doors. Across the way, the giant platinum mirrors of L’Actuel have been replaced with pleasant Mondrian-style paintings done in blocks of pastel colors. Oriental carpets cover the redwood floor, and instead of the Japanese lamp shades of yore, light shines from red sconces that look like miniature upside-down teepees. The room is quieter and much more comfortable than before, with red and green velvet banquettes, oil-burning lamps in glass bottles and white cloths on the tables. Earlier in the year, the centerpiece was a

surreal-looking green lawn made of wheatgrass, with a bouquet of red roses plonked in the center. Now it’s a giant spray of unpainted twigs hung with red and silver Christmas balls.

Chef Schillinger is from Alsace, where his father had a two-star restaurant (he and Mr. Lhopitault also owned Destinee, which closed last year). His food is gorgeous to look at, playful and inventive, yet firmly based in the classics. It’s served on eye-catching plates that come in all kinds of fanciful shapes and styles. They look straight out of Moss Design on Greene Street-curved glass, swirling teardrops, jagged edge tiles and deep white bowls-and they serve as frames for glistening pools of sauce and meat or fish that are lined up in precise, military rows or cut into minuscule cubes.

Given the chef’s background, it’s hardly surprising that the tarte flambé, an Alsatian pizza, should be so extraordinary. It’s a holdover from the old menu, brought sizzling to the table topped with onion and cheese. The onion is slightly raw under its layer of melted cheese; the bacon is smoky and the crust feathery and light, not heavy or filling. Mr. Schillinger has also kept another pizza from before, a combination of tuna and wasabi (a Barry Wine dish from Mercer Kitchen). Except for this and the scrambled eggs with caviar that is served alongside poached egg with truffle mashed potatoes, the menu-which is quite short-is entirely new.

Tartare de St. Jacques is made with sea scallops, hand-cut into quarter-inch squares and served with ginger, tomato confit and a creamy caviar dressing. Lobster salad is heaped on a tiny pile of mixed greens, with a paper-thin cracker stuffed with crabmeat and a lemongrass and mango dressing. The plate is decorated with globules of green basil mayonnaise arranged in a semicircle in graduating sizes. (I wonder how many times the cook working on this plate messes it up!)

One of my dinner companions was shocked to see salmon flavored with sumac on the menu: “Isn’t that a poison?” Like a Japanese gourmet taking on the potentially lethal fugu fish, she ordered it anyway. Four perfect rectangles of salmon arrived on a crisscross pattern of dark brown sauce that stuck to the plate like glue. The fish was moist and smoky, a perfect foil for the airy horseradish cream and thin, spongy pancakes that garnished it. So what’s next? Deadly nightshade?

Mr. Schillinger extracts intense flavors from his ingredients. A line-up of rectangular slabs of rare, seared sesame tuna is served with mustard sauce and dollops of ratatouille. How did he coax such taste out of summer vegetables at this time of year? A thick, perfectly cooked chunk of seared cod is matched with garlickly mashed potatoes and black olives. The porcini with the seared sea scallops had such a powerful aroma, I’m sure you could have smelled it from the next table. Braised lamb shank flavored with orange and served with potato gnocchi (which looked like little pancakes) had a rich, plummy sauce and buttery texture.

But there were a couple of losers. The halibut in a herb crust arrived looking as though it had been baked under a layer of the wheatgrass from the old dining-room centerpiece. It was overcooked, damp and spongy, and the bland tabbouleh sauce underneath did nothing to help. I was disappointed with the sweetbreads, too: They came under a foamy mushroom emulsion that had a lovely, truffly smell, topped with large, peeled fava beans. The dish was flat and needed something astringent-such as capers or even lemon-to bring it to life.

Desserts are elaborate. “I forgot what I ordered,” said my companion, gazing down at the plate. Yves Tinguely and Paul Klee could have had a hand in its design, with the colorful splodges and the zeppelin-shaped pastry cylinder. But there was a clue: a pear silhouette in chocolate powder. Pear parfait!

Apart from a caramelized mango gratin that was way too sweet, pastry chef Raphael Sutter’s desserts were both playful and delicious. The mango on polenta-which a friend described deliriously as tasting like a fruit version of uni-was inspired. So was the traditional Alsatian apple tart, which consisted of thin slices of apple on a fine pastry shell with vanilla ice cream. I also liked the selection of mini crèmes brûlées: vanilla, coffee, basil, thyme, citrus and honey. Mr. Schillinger must know his audience, for there are three chocolate desserts to choose from and they are all worth the calories. They include a heavenly molten chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet, and a bittersweet chocolate bombe with an apple marmalade filling and a green apple sorbet on the side.

Olica has set out to become a destination restaurant. This part of town may lack the frisson offered by a trip downtown, but the food is terrific. So what’s in a name?

OLICA

**1/2

145 East 50th Street

583-0001

Dress: Business Noise Level: Fine Wine List: Mostly French, with some good inexpensive choices Credit Cards: All major Price Range: Lunch and dinner, main courses, $23 to $33 Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11:30 p.m.

* Good

** Very Good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

no star Poor