An Intimate Cove; An Intercontinental Fare: Olea & Kala Bistro
"To me, having a nice meal is one of the best ways to enjoy life," Chef Manuel Romero remarks, arms folded as he surveys the dining room of Kala Bistro, in North Haven. "Unfortunately, a lot of people don't have enough time to spend on a meal; they have a lot of have places to be; they are rushed.” Fortunately, a tasting menu from one of Chef Romero’s kitchens, home to inventive ingredient combinations and artful food presentation, caters to that hectic lifestyle. The secret? Small bites.
Romero and team are experts in tapas dishes, applying the small-dish style not only to Spanish dishes, but Mediterranean and global cuisine, as well. But the Spanish influence is never too distant, as the names of the respective restaurants suggest. The name “Olea” refers to the botantical family Oleaceae, which includes the olive tree; the name “Kala” (Bistro) riffs on the Spanish word cala, which translates roughly to “intimate cove.” The names offer an indication of the restaurants’ mission: to provide eclectic fare that reflects both European and global influences.
Located in downtown New Haven's historic Yale University district, on the brick townhouse-lined High Street, Olea is now enjoying its sixth year of business. The owners are two couples: Andrea & Manuel Romero and Maria & Juan Carlos Gonzalez. The restaurant's facade is unassuming, with only a minimalist sign to indicate its presence on the street. The well-lit interior of the space is set in a dark charcoal-granite color scheme, with one white-painted brick wall to the right and the opposite with crystallized curtains hanging down, lit by wall-washing lights. There are half-moon banquettes, a long, curved bar, and a zig-zag partitioning curtain that descends from ceiling to floor, separating the dining and bar room.
While the space is notably handsome, its aesthetic value ultimately serves as a background to Olea’s true art – the food – which is a work onto itself. “The kitchen staff comes at 12, just to prepare for dinner,” manager Andrea Romero explains. And while Chef Romero notes that not every diner takes the time to notice the artistic intricacies in each dish, “those customers that do are extremely appreciative.”
A Taste of Olea
Bright orange in color and with an entirely smooth texture, Chef Romero’s gazpacho carries a delightful tang of sherry vinegar and pepper notes. The soup is joined by Jamon Iberico, imported from the west of Spain. Sourced from hogs that are fed mostly acorn and grasses, it is slightly sweet and nutty, offering a rich eating experience. The dish also includes boquerones: fresh, marinated anchovies from Basque country on small slices of toast, held together with a thin layer of avocado puree. Bright, tangy, and ever so slightly sinful, it reframes the American expectations of anchovies.
Set in the center of a spiraled white bowl, the ceviche mixto includes an array of seafood: mussels, shrimp, squid, octopus, and bay scallops, joined by mangos and onions marinated in citrus juice, and served in a sweet tomato base. The finishing touch is a small cloud of ahi amarillo air. Every element of this dish is exceptionally tender, yet never overly soft. The tomato base is refreshingly sweet and savory, and the delicate ahi amarillo offers a welcome balance of heat – and Spain’s characteristic pepper flavor – to the dish.
Oxtail Mushroom Croquettes
Following the ceviche, the oxtail mushroom croquettes offer a more savory indulgence. The hard shell of the croquette gives way to a creamy center, with an abundance of flavorful, slow cooked meat therein. The caramelized onions cooked in red wine, beneath the croquettes, are slightly sweet and mellow. A mustard dollop on top works well to offer counterpoint to the rich oxtail. Fried Brussel sprout leaves are scattered across the plate, offering a delicious snack good enough to stand on its own. The plate is garnished with red amaranth and purple micuna, both of which balance the dish with a slight bitterness while presenting visual appeal.
Bacalao (Cod Fish Confit)
The bacalao offers a visually stunning scene, complete with codfish mousse atop the flaky, buttery fish, along with micro greens and cross sections of purple cauliflower. Sliced fingerling potatoes and a bright red pepper sauce make the base. Every element of this dish helps to support the delicateness and richness of the fish by offering a variety of textures to the diner’s palate.
The pato entree is comprised of pan-seared rohan duck breast from New York state, parsnip puree, bacon, chickpeas, cubed butternut squash, fresh figs, baby arugula, and a citrus-duck jus. Here, as with many of Chef Romero’s dishes, the seemingly minor elements steal the show. Take for example the uniformly cut squash cubes, sweet and firm, taking on the flavors of the duck-infused jus; or the caramelized chickpeas in the dish, with their delightful bite and golden hue.
As accompaniment to their impressive food and wine selection, Olea’s inventive cocktail offerings round out their menu. Owner Juan Carlos Gonzalez has been honing his bartending skills for most of his life, beginning in Spain, then Venezuela, then finally to New York City and New Haven. His son Daniel tends the bar at Olea. One of the bar’s specialties is “The Nathan,” named after a customer and molded on the prohibition “millionaire” cocktail, that is comprised of High West double rye whiskey, Grand Marnier, and homemade grenadine. “Lust for Life” is another popular menu item, a smoky and sweet cocktail made with amaras mezcal, amontillado sherry, orgeat, pineapple juice, and fresh lemon juice. Of course, the most adventurous diners lean towards “The Verde,” made with jalapeño infused Lunazul blanco tequila, clement creole shrubb, agave nectar, fresh lemon juice, and a kiwi slice garnish on the bottom.
Set in suburban North Haven, near the border of Hamden, Kala Bistro is the second and newest venture by the Romero/Gonzalez team. It’s important to note the team are not seeking to create a facsimile of their New Haven icon in this new location. As Romero points out, “Kala is going to be more casual; less expensive too. It is going to be a totally different concept.” The bistro offers global comfort fare, and while it is inclusive of the Spanish dishes that Olea is famous for, Chef Romero’s new menu casts a wider net with offerings such as an Asian-cuisine inspired Bao Pork Belly bun, American-style shrimp rolls and pork baby back ribs, a French and Italian fusion of Ratatouille Lasagna, and much more.
Kala also presents a new and different opportunity for the Romero/Gonzalez team. Architecturally, Kala Bistro offers two elements that Olea does not: a large parking lot and an outdoor patio. “The patio is good because customers want to be outside in the summer,” Chef Romero explains, and “the parking lot is good for winters,” when street parking on New Haven’s crowded avenues is at a premium. Romero sees additional opportunity in the decidedly more suburban locale. “I think the location is great. A lot of people that work in New Haven live here, and for people who live in Cheshire and work in New Haven, Kala is halfway between.”
A Taste of Kala Bistro
A sampling of small bites and main dishes at Kala Bistro is a whirlwind of different flavors and textures, and Chef Romero encourages guests to order a variety of dishes with friends in order to get a full experience.
The codfish mousse is airy, salty, and smooth, and brings oceanic flavor to the dish with capers, served on small toasts. The potato omelette – with garlic aioli and onions – is composed of both firm and soft textures that remind the diner of a latke, despite the dish’s roots in traditional Spanish cuisine.
Comprised of wild shrimp, crunchy celery, mayonnaise, and Old Bay seasoning, the shrimp rolls are refreshing and reminiscent of a quintessential summer in New England. The croquettes, with a crunchy crust and decadently soft interior, boast a hearty mixture of prosciutto, nutmeg, and béchamel.
Bao Pork Belly
The Bao Pork Belly is served with a crackling skin served on a doughy bun, garnished with cucumber, pickled carrots, red onions, and nutty hoisin sauce. Joining it on the plate is a stuffed sweet piquillo pepper, filled with yellowfin tuna and served with a mild carrot ginger purée, that presents a fresh and delightfully-light menu choice.
Served with the skin on, the trout is perched atop a bed of lyonnaise potatoes, shallots, and a Dijon mustard sauce. The skin, packed with a concentrated flavor of salt and sea-essence, offers balance against the succulent fish. The potatoes, cooked firm, are enriched by the classic onion, parsley, and butter combination of the lyonnaise preparation, while also absorbing the tangy Dijon mustard sauce.
Duck Confit Cassoulet
Kala’s take on duck confit cassoulet is comprised of a Bella Bella farm duck leg, bits of bacon, whole white beans, thyme, and boudin noir (blood sausage). While duck is notoriously difficult to prepare well, this is cooked expertly, with rich, tender meat and crackly skin. Small, delightfully firm cubes of bacon are intermixed with creamy, earthy white beans, that offer a tactile resistance before giving way to the fork. The blood sausage (or boudin noir) inserts a sharp, gamey flavor that rounds out the different elements contained in the dish.
“We have a very esoteric bar here. We are focusing on high-end spirits, modern gin, fresh syrups, and other inventive takes on classic cocktails,” bartender Michelle Draper explains, standing behind the freshly minted, marble-topped, and well-stocked bar. “We try to keep it nuanced while keeping the heart of the cocktail alive”
Among the cocktail offerings are “The Kala” – both spicy and smooth, made with Kracken rum, allspice dram, and house-made ginger syrup – and “The 20th Century,” made with Dorothy Parker gin, Temple Fugit crème de cacao, cocchi, and bittersweet chocolate shavings.
An Intimate Cove; An Intercontinental Fare
Whether the diner’s choice is casual or formal, rushed or relaxed, or simply hungry, the restaurant team behind Olea and Kala Bistro has both the small plates and libations to please. For a taste of Chef Romero’s intercontinental fusion cuisine, stop by either Olea or Kala Bistro and order a plate (or 10) for yourself.