A trio of crostini (shrimp, burrata and prosciutto)
As a general rule, Chicagoans don’t take kindly to big-name New York and L.A. restaurants that come swaggering into town. Outsiders Spago, Il Mulino and Brasserie Ruhlmann all opened in Chicago with much fanfare only to fizzle out and eventually close. And how can we forget—well, most of us probably have, which is kind of my point—BLT American Brasserie from hotshot NYC chef Laurent Tourondel, which took over the Brasserie Ruhlmann space and shuttered its doors a mere five months after opening.
So when news hit of the Chicago arrival of Fig & Olive, the chic Mediterranean-inspired restaurant chainlet that has outposts in NYC and L.A., I was a little skeptical. It is located on Oak Street, an area known more for high-end boutiques—albeit some of the city’s best—than places to eat.
Arriving for our 6:15PM reservation on a Friday night—it was either then or after 9—I was primed for some attitude. Instead, I got a big smile (one of many I would receive that night from other staff members) from the hostess outside the front door directing me to the elevator that takes guests up to the second floor of the 10,000-square-foot restaurant.
When the elevator doors opened, it was hard not to be impressed, even for a dining curmudgeon like me, and I’m not just referring to the well-dressed crowd. The light-filled room is dominated by a beautiful rectangular marble-topped bar, which has, at its center, two olive trees whose branches shoot toward the skylight overhead. On the left, a lounge decked out with soft gray linen sofas and chairs, and ahead a dining area outfitted with midcentury modern furniture.
The third-floor dining area is equally breathtaking, with the view of the open kitchen and its army of chefs, as well as the tops of those aforementioned trees. At the far end is a charming plant-filled patio overlooking Oak Street. (Tip: The outdoor space, as well as the lounge, are first come, first served.) As I leaned back in the cushy banquette with a cream-colored pillow propped behind me, I wondered if Fig & Olive was going to be just a pretty face.
Turns out Fig & Olive is more than just its good looks. The food, which gracefully wanders from the French Riviera to the coasts of Italy and Spain, is well worth your attention too. While all of the Fig & Olive spots are overseen by Executive Chef Pascal Lorange—a onetime private chef to Julio Iglesias, no less—it’s Chef de Cuisine Anthony Reyes, a Chicago native, who’s in charge of the day-to-day operations and the one tapping local farmers and purveyors for some of the dishes’ seasonal ingredients.
With eight main sections—ranging from raw seafood and salads to pasta and whole fish—the menu invites wandering too. But no matter where your trip takes you, be sure to start with the crostini ($12 for three, $21 for six). A lot of thought has gone into the topping combinations for the 11 different available. I’m partial to the manchego-fig-marcona almond one and the cured salmon with schmear of cucumber yogurt. Three of those along with a refreshing Fig & Olive walnut julep ($12) would make for a perfect late-afternoon snack. Add in the appetizer of thinly sliced octopus served cold, topped with potato chunks, marinated peppers and a drizzle of olive oil ($16) and a glass of rosé (the Chateau La Coste Cuvee Bellugue, $13, perhaps?) and it could be dinner.
If you smell a faint aroma of truffles, credit the popular truffle mushroom croquettes appetizer ($14). Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, the cube-shaped fritters offer a terrific punch of umami. It’s the dish Reyes had servers pass around the packed bar one recent Saturday night. “We want to make friends,” Reyes says.
I expect the restaurant’s making plenty of friends with its yellowfin tuna a la provencale entree ($32). The generous wedge of gently seared fish still pink on the inside is served with smoked eggplant caviar, and roasted cherry tomatoes and olives. Powerful flavors, for sure, but they come together nicely on the plate. Exotic notes can also be found in the tasty tagine entree ($27), which features tender chicken thighs spiced with a mix of cardamom, rose petals and anise, and paired with carrots, figs, cipollini and a side of couscous.
The wonderfully creamy chocolate pot de creme dessert ($10) and its more waistline-friendly menu neighbor, the pretty berry crostata ($12), are winners among the bountiful dessert options.
But, by far, the dish that gets the heads at Fig & Olive swiveling the most is the lamb chops ($39), which arrive at the table covered with a glass dome that’s filled with smoke from the still-smoldering branch of rosemary inside. “Smells like a bonfire in a forest in France,” said one of my dining companions when the dome was lifted. I imagine that’s exactly the effect the owners of Fig & Olive were hoping for.
Fig & Olive
104 E. Oak St., 312.445.0060
Open for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly and brunch Sat.-Sun.