Don’t be fooled by the austere facade of Fig & Olive. Those tall front doors open to a sprawling wonderland that channels the sun-soaked luxury of the French Riviera. Fashion Island supplies the pricey real estate; architects and landscapers the limestone and olive trees; and nature the endless sunshine and sea-scented breezes. Voila—Cannes by way of Newport Beach.
Open since December, Fig & Olive perpetually teems with those who can’t resist the scene when a player comes to town. You know the crowd: sockless guys in Italian loafers, their gals in Chanel, their beloved Bentleys parked up front in valet. Between the stunning, resortlike ambience and the A-plus people-watching, meals here, even business lunches, have a languid pace. Fig & Olive seems to exist in its own Pacific Leisure Time zone.
Peppy and sun-kissed, executive chef Pascal Lorange embodies the Mediterranean coastal lifestyle the restaurant forges with dazzling style. Working with a global palette of olive oils, he fashions local and seasonal goods into ingredient-driven dishes that lean toward classic, and away from trailblazing. The fare is exuberant, yet tidy and light. Since Lorange can’t be at all seven restaurants—even executive pastry chef Andrew LeStourgeon consults from Vermont—Kevin Hee is chef de cuisine here, and the toque that captains this high-volume kitchen.
One afternoon on the airy patio, we wait 25 minutes for specialty cocktails. Plenty of time to watch four ladies-who-lunch pass an iPad so each can get a good look at before-and-after face-lift photos. To be fair, servers do a lot of walking to get point to point in this 12,000-square-foot venue. To get your drinks pronto, sit at the 30-seat bar. When cocktails finally arrive, they’re so appealing we forgive the wait and forget the face-lifts. Passion fruit vodka and fresh blood orange juice make the Rossellini a charmer of a martini, and the bourbon julep of muddled black figs, mint, and a garnish of shaved walnuts gets extra points for originality.
The menu lists more than 60 items, with dinner slightly shorter than lunch. Aside from lunch’s expanded choice of salads and sandwiches, many dishes appear at both meals. Open-face tartines are lovely constructions of Mediterranean ingredients: prosciutto, artichokes, ricotta, tuna, capers. A roster of miniversions are offered as mix-and-match crostini. Just add a crock of fabulous mixed olives for an idyllic déjeuner. All thoughts of dessert vanish when a miscommunication brings an order of truffle mushroom croquettes. I dare anyone to not finish these fried Parmesan-crusted tots of chopped creminis bound with a proper Béchamel sauce. The hedonistic morsels out-indulge any sweet on the dessert menu.
Dinner attracts a high-energy crowd that exudes a noisy buzz, but I doubt it’s all about chef Lorange’s worldly cuisine. Diners seem content to sit out long waits and curious gaps between courses. One evening, as my tablemates shout to converse, we watch our perky waitress chat with a trio of dapper men her dad’s age while our drink order sits in her pocket. A nearby waiter rescues us, and our evening. His savvy appetizer suggestions include fresh, iced Kumamoto oysters, beautiful tuna crudo lashed with picual olive oil, and an atypically generous portion of caper-flecked beef tartare with artisan crackers and gutsy manzanillo olive oil. All is right with the world until the uneven entrees arrive. My dark-meat chicken tagine beguiles with its perfumy blend of Moroccan spices, slow-cooked figs, olives, apricots, fluffy couscous, and DIY garnishes of toasted almond, harissa, and peppery olive oil. It’s well-executed, but the portion is so modest I clean my plate quickly. Grilled lamb chops, smoked-to-order with herbs de Provence, reek so much of campfire it takes a few bites to ascertain the chops are high-quality. Pumpkin sage ravioli suffers from leaden pasta and bashful seasoning. It’s off the menu now, replaced by summer’s house-made goat-cheese-and-zucchini-blossom ravioli.
Stay late if you dare to watch the scene evolve to a Louboutin theme park, complete with a DJ spinning Euro-cool tunes. Or, you can avoid that pageant by scooting in from 4 to 6 p.m. for happy hour that boasts a snacky aperitivo menu at the bar and lounge. Sure, the gazpacho Andalucia is humdrum and the lobster bisque is bland, but the worthy Spain, France, or Italy tasting plates are a relative bargain, and you can shave a few bucks off those flashy cocktails.
Despite its French roots and san souci environment, I can’t imagine making a steady diet of Fig & Olive, though I might buy the olive oils and the CD on its website. Still, the vast menu has plenty to offer, and I know I can bring or send guests here and be secure knowing they’ll be decently fed and thoroughly entertained.
After all, it’s just not hip to send adults to Disneyland.
Tuna crudo, beef tartare, fresh oysters, tasting plates, crostinis, tartines, truffle mushroom croquettes, mixed olives, chicken tagine, signature cocktails.
Lunch, $8 to $26; dinner, $9 to $90; happy hour, $7 to $11; brunch, $8 to $29.
120 Minutes of Happy
Twenty-four bar stools fill up fast for the 4-to-6 p.m. happy hour with 20 percent off the six-item tavern menu and $2-off cocktails.
Buy Fig & Olive vinegars, oils, and spreads for gifts, or your pantry, at bestolivestore.com
151 Newport Center Drive Fashion Island 949-877-3005 figandolive.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.