On Thursday, I had a startling revelation: I hadn’t been to Restaurant Week yet! With nearly 300 New York restaurants participating, it would have been absurd of me – the avid food lover – not to at least try one Restaurant Week menu. So, I decided to search for restaurants within a comfortable walking distance of Grand Central. The list was long, and the decision as to where to go was hard, but I ultimately chose Fig & Olive’s Fifth Avenue location. The idea of fresh, Mediterranean foods accented with artisanal olive oil was very appealing to me, as it sounded like a good match for the season. I had also heard that it was a pretty lively spot with lots of young, attractive patrons.
When I called to make a reservation, the hostess coldly informed me that I could not make a reservation for one person (yes, I decided to go it alone on this one) and that I would have to come to the restaurant and hope for a seat at the bar. I was not impressed with her attitude or her seeming prejudice toward single people, but I decided to try the restaurant anyway because it just seems like one of those places you should go to at least once in New York.
When I arrived at 7:30, the place was absolutely packed. There was a line of about 8-10 people just waiting to speak to the host about being seated at their table. I was immediately uncomfortable. People were packed in like sardines, the A/C didn’t seem to be working, and the entire restaurant smelled of mushrooms and body odor. I also quickly realized that the crowd here wasn’t what I expected – there were a lot of thirty-somethings (and older) having drinks at the bar or dining with large groups of friends and/or co-workers. The bar looked like a meat market – women were perched on bar stools surrounded by overweight, middle-aged men who were buying them martinis. I almost felt like I was watching an episode of Sex and the City, but with less cute clothing. I also utilized the time spent waiting in line to survey the decor. I thought the design and color palate were very nice – lots of modern, simple lines, neutral tones, and mood lighting. It had a minimalist feel which complemented the minimalist name of the restaurant and its supposedly clean, fresh, Mediterranean menu.
Finally, I made my way up to the host. He ignored me for a few seconds, but then asked impatiently what he could do for me. I informed him that I did not have reservations since they wouldn’t allow me to make them (he said something along the lines of, “Well yes, we don’t take reservations for parties of one) but that I’d like to eat dinner – even if that meant at the bar. He sighed and asked the woman next to him if she could place me at the “Communal Table.” She briskly escorted me to the high top, 8-person table and left me with the regular menu and the Restaurant Week menu.
Because I had gone to Fig & Olive with the goal of taking advantage of Restaurant Week, I decided to ignore the regular menu and focus on the Restaurant Week selection. Ultimately, I picked the Steak Tartar, the Shrimp and Scallops Paella, and Dessert Crostini. Very shortly after being seated, the waitress appeared at my side with Fig & Olive’s signature bread and olive oil flight. The idea behind this is very cool – they give you 3 different types of olive oil from around the world (I had one from Greece, one from Chili, and a third from a country whose name I didn’t catch). However, at least on this particular night, the execution was poor. The bread was completely flavorless and it had a very dry crumb. Granted, I do understand that the olive oil is supposed to be the star here, but the bread doesn’t need to be this underwhelming in order for the olive oil to shine. Furthermore, the waitress was so frenzied – literally, she was running from table to table – that she spent about 10 seconds explaining the olive oils to me. I would have actually liked more of a lesson on olive oil – and maybe I would have gotten that on a less busy night. The olive oils themselves were very enjoyable. One was very clean, bright, and green in color, another was warm, buttery, and golden, and the third was lighter, paler, and had a spicy kick at the end.
The waitress immediately scampered away after dropping off the bread, but she came back relatively quickly to take my order. I gave her my appetizer and main course selections, and within no more than 3 minutes of placing the order, my Steak Tartar arrived. This bothered me immensely. Steak tartar is raw meat. It should be prepared to order so that it’s fresh – it shouldn’t be made in advance and let to sit out and potentially spoil. Putting my minor anxiety aside, I took a moment to survey the plate, and I felt that the presentation was nice. Two pieces of olive oil toast were stacked asymmetrically on one side of the rectangular plate. In the center of the plate were capers, a smear of mayonnaise, and shallots. Finally, on the right side of the plate, the formed mound of steak tartar was arranged with a fig placed on top of it. The steak itself, however, looked absolutely awful. First, I’ve never had steak tartar prepared using mayonnaise as a binding agent – and I would have thought that a restaurant that focuses so heavily on olive oil might have just tossed the steak in olive oil and seasoning for a cleaner look and taste. The mayonnaise gave the dish a dirty, brownish grey hue. To make matters worse, because the meat wasn’t freshly chopped, it had begun to turn brown as it was exposed to the air. Despite the off-putting appearance and my concerns about the health risks of eating pre-prepared raw meat, I dug in. And it was absolutely awful. The bread, though it appeared to be toasted, was actually cold and stale. And the tartar, oh dear, where to begin. First, for Restaurant Week, they decided to grind the meat instead of chopping it – so the finely ground, almost shredded meat + tons of mayonnaise + an overwhelming amount of capers and onions meant that, not only was the flavor of the steak nonexistent, but also, I felt as though I was eating a tuna salad. The capers and mayonnaise were so strong in this dish – flavors that I typically associate with tuna salad – that I wanted to go back to the kitchen and search for the can of Chicken of the Sea that they used to prepare this.
Within about 5 minutes of the waitress clearing away my appetizer, the paella arrived. Again, probably not made to order. The presentation was very average and the serving was small, but the taste of the dish was the biggest problem. The shrimp and scallops were served atop, not mixed in with, saffron rice, eggplant tapenade, bell pepper, tomato, and garlic. First, there were only 2 medium-sized shrimp and 2 large scallops – very stingy. Though I will say that the scallops were seared perfectly. Second, the rice itself was not fully cooked – many pieces were still a bit crunchy. Additionally, there was not nearly enough of the fresh flavors of the eggplant and tomatoes (they came across as an afterthought), whereas there was so much bell pepper and onion that those flavors completely overwhelmed the dish. In fact, the onion had been roughly butchered into such large pieces that some were not even cooked all the way through and still had a mildly opaque, white appearance.
After taking away the paella, the waitress came back to take my dessert order. Now, I was really excited about this dessert. Described as a “crostini,” it was actually a shortbread cookie topped with mascarpone cheese, strawberry, and aged balsamic vinegar. Sounds super, right? Again, a big let down. The dessert came out within a minute or two of placing my order – even faster than the appetizer had arrived – and it was immediately apparent that it had been prepared hours in advance. The cookie was ice cold (though I enjoyed its sweet and salty flavor and the texture of the turbinado sugar on top of it), the mascarpone cheese was hard and haphazardly smeared on the cookie, and the strawberries were very small. Moreover, they had clearly been sitting atop the cheese for a long time, as the cheese was stained red. The presentation was very poor on this dish. The three “crostinis” sat on a bed of what looked like clovers and, again, because they had been sitting in a refrigerator for so long, the greens were stuck to the cookies and had to be pulled off in order to eat the dessert. Did anyone notice that I didn’t mention the balsamic vinegar? That’s because there was pretty much none. I saw a trace of it in a crevice between two tiny strawberries, but there was not a hint of a balsamic flavor in this dessert.
$38 later, I felt full but unhappy (yes, I did eat most of my dinner to avoid having to buy a second one). I hope for the sake of Fig & Olive that the harried service, the lackluster presentation, and the horrible flavors were a result of Restaurant Week – but even then, that does not excuse my dining experience. I will not go back to Fig & Olive, even if I were to hear that its food and service is better outside of Restaurant Week, because I think they should be using these 2 weeks to attract new customers, not treat them like dirt because they’re buying a $35 prix fixe dinner.