For many home cooks like me, a meal is an opportunity to be inspired. Ingredients we thought we were familiar with take on new shapes, or are paired in combinations that did not seem possible. Recently, I visited Oliva Dieta Mediterranea, the restaurant lodged in the Olive Boutique Hotel in Condado, Puerto Rico. Oliva – as it is often referred to – was acquired by its head chef, Argentine expat Nicolás Gómez. Chef Nico renewed its concept, opting to work directly with farmers and local food producers to bring a menu that’s as much fun for him to prepare as it is for the diner to enjoy. Additionally, he lowered the prices in many items, making the restaurant more accessible to both locals and tourists.
Chef Nico displays respect to the local produce and agriculture and showcases them through his European influences. It’s as if he were finding the ‘criollo’ touch in Mediterranean cuisine. Oliva’s focus on local ingredients extends to the bar, where mixologist William Santiago incorporates local products into the drinks. We sampled the Don Avocado, an aged rum cocktail made with avocado puree and lemongrass. Other unexpected components that find their way into the cocktails at Oliva include beets, pumpkin, ripe plantain, arugula, sweet potato and mamey.
Here are five lessons from our tasting at Oliva Dieta Mediterranea:
1. Plantain is a Caribbean chameleon
For his take on sorrentino, a large filled pasta, Chef Nico prepared a flourless dough with sweet, ripe plantains. The amarillo “pasta” was filled with spinach and caramelized onions, doused with a savory saffron-based sauce and topped with crumbled local goat cheese. Since the plantain needs to be cooked before it is processed into the pasta sheets, the sorrentinos are just sauteed in butter.
2. Flavor is built block by block
For Chef Nico’s version of camarones al ajillo – garlic shrimp – he created a roasted garlic compound butter. This compound butter is used for sauteeing the shrimp and in the base for the sauce. The generous serving of sauce is punched up with spicy Spanish paprika. The shrimp rests on a bed of pumpkin risotto, perfect for sopping up the garlicky broth.
3. Sprouts add satisfying crunch and freshness to dishes
Spring rolls and egg rolls are inherently crunchy, and need additional freshness to balance out their fried exteriors. Chef Nico’s short rib and spinach spring rolls were heightened by the inclusion of lentil sprouts. Between the crisp shell, the crunch of the sprouts, and the chimichurri inspired aioli, these rolls were delightfully textured.
4. Small tweaks can elevate classics
Together, salmon and lentils are a classic Mediterranean dish that can be found through Spain, France and Italy. To enrich these earthy flavors and bring them to Puerto Rico, Chef Nico added cream and local longaniza from Alcor Foods. The garlicky chips topping the salmon were also a fun way to add texture to the dish.
5. Great deals are available for weeknight dining
Why save all the fun for the weekend? Many restaurants are offering prix-fixe menus during the weekdays to attract visitors. Oliva Dieta Mediterranea is no exception. From Tuesday through Thursdays, Chef Nico is offering a three course dinner with wine pairings for just $45.00 (before taxes/gratuities). Reservations are strongly recommended.
Oliva Dieta Mediterranea is located on 55 Aguadilla St, in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan. It opens for dinner at 6pm from Tuesdays through Saturdays. We’d like to thank Chef Nicolás Gómez and our friends in Kinori Group for the invitation to visit the restaurant and try these dishes. All opinions are 100% our own.