Merida: Oliva Kitchen and Bar and Chopped Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
I have taken a liking to salads that are composed of many vegetables, all finely chopped and tossed together in a harmonious pile. They are easier to eat than a large leafy salad and the flavours blend together so nicely with the dressing, just my kind of thing.
I have had one such salad recently on a side trip to Merida last week. We went there to take a cooking class at Los Dos cookings school and explore local architecture but trying out a few restaurants is always on the agenda.
One of the restaurants we tried was not Mexican but rather Italian and because of the good reviews I received from friends who know I decided to try it. It also helped that the restaurant was within two short blocks of Villa Verde where we were staying.
We walked over late one evening after almost foregoing dinner altogether. It was the same day we took the cooking class and after that class I swore that I will not eat another bite for an entire week, not because the food wasn’t good, quite the contrary, but because there was so much of it all at once. That story is for another post. But you know how it is, my curiosity got the better of me. By 9:00 pm I decided that we should go and I told my husband that he may have to eat my food because I am going to order but probably couldn’t eat much and he consented (it’s often the case).
So we walked over to the restaurant and a little mobility after the heavy, heavy meal at the cooking class was also good.
The restaurant in question is Oliva Kitchen and Bar, an Italian restaurant owned by Stefano, an Italian from Rome who has lived in Merida for some time. Stefano is not a trained chef but evidently a great cook and he opened this restaurant fairly recently to great acclaim. Oliva is small, I counted 5 or 6 tables in total in addition to 5 seats at the bar and it is very intimate and attractive. The kitchen occupies half the space and the number of workers seems to equal the number of guests.
Oliva was initially set a take out place for paninis, salads and a couple of pasta dishes, much like the Yucatan Cocina Economica and the quality of the food created demand that eventually transformed it to a small restaurant serving sit down dinners. I understand that expansion plans are underway and Stefano is building a much larger establishment down the street from the current location. Thankfully, this location will remain in operation.
Apparently we were lucky to get in that evening. People standing outside having just finished their dinner told us they had to wait outside a long time to get a table but they assured us that we will have a fabulous dinner. Okay, I don’t always trust people when it comes to food, mostly thanks to Trip Advisor that is not always in line with my taste and style, but this place was recommended by people in the know (Thanks Cindy).
We went in and were seated immediately at a table for two by the kitchen. I liked it instantly. It had a warm, inviting, family style Italian feel. The menu was hand-written on a large board on the wall (printed menus also available) and the place was full with youngish local couples smooching and no, it wasn’t Valentine’s day. G and I weren’t smooching but at least we were talking…it was a long day:).
The idea of ordering just one thing went out the window. I needed to try an appetizer, their salads and pasta and with G ordering two other dishes I should have a pretty good idea of the food in this little charming establishment.
The cute Mayan server came right over and spoke fluent English so for the moment I dropped the pretend Spanish that I have been trying to use. We ordered our food and some garlic bread (yes) and settled back to watch the going on.
The kitchen was open and right beside me so I could watch the cooks prepare the meals. They were very friendly and tolerant of my big telephoto lens and snapping pictures as they worked but of course with the low lighting and heavy lens half the pics ended up fuzzy and too dark but I tried.
The food was exceptionally good. The insalate frecsa (salad) was the chopped kind, with everything cut very small and mixed with a simple vinaigrette that was almost in perfect balance (needed just a bit more zest). The pasta al pomodore had Penne with Cherry Tomatoes, Dried Tomatoes, Mozzarella Fresca, garlic, Basil and Parmesan and was simply delicious, cooked al dente and with lovely balance of flavours and textures. George had Insalate Verde (green salad) with Spinach, Avocado, Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese & Balsamic Vinaigrette. The pasta he had was Pasta Al Rosmarino: Fettucini with Pancetta, Salchicha, Champiñones, Crema, Romero, Parmesano Crujiente (crispy parmesan). I am not going to admit not being able to eat such good food because I was full, (you can think whatever you want:), but we sent clean plates back to the kitchen. Go George. Dessert was out of the question. We walked back to our villa Verde very happy that we did not miss this dining experience.
When I looked for hotels in Merida I was choosing between two: Villa Verde and Casa Lecunda. Now I found out the Casa Lecunda is owned by Stefano, who owns Oliva. Interesting, food and architecture, two of my passions as well. Casa Lecunda is another restored home that was made into a 5 or 6 room luxury boutique hotel. It is just a block away and around the corner from the restaurant and is within a short distance of Paseo Montejo, the Champs-Elysees-like avenue in the center of Merida, lined on both sides with the great historical colonial mansions of the past. It is a sight to behold. After dinner we walked over to Casa Lecunda to check it out and it did not disappoint. Beautifully restored and elegant with gorgeous inner courtyard and a small bar open to non-guests so you can go there for a martini at night. Unlike Villa Verde where the rooms open to the courtyard, the rooms at Casa Lecunda are at the back, on two levels. The new and expanded Oliva restaurant I mentioned above is being built as we speak across the street from Casa Lecunda.
When we returned to our Mayan Riviera abode I made a shredded salad inspired by the one at Oliva but of course, I didn’t have all the ingredients such as radicchio, fennel, maybe endive etc, but I used what I had in the fridge and the salad was delicious hence I am sharing it on the blog. I made the dressing with the juice of one lime, salt and olive oil, nada mas (nothing more). It was all this little salad needed.
I am not specifying quantities in this recipe. It’s a salad, just add as much or as little of whatever you have or wish to include. About 4 cups would serve 2-3 people for a fair size salad, or 4 as an appetizer salad. Here are the ingredients listed on Oliva’s menu for this salad, but under “lettuce” they had a few different ones in the salad: Lettuce, Cucumber, Radish, Onion, Orange and Fennel, with Red Wine Vinaigrette
Cut he following into small shreds:
Juice of 1 juicy lime
The juice from the orange in the recipe
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1-2 teaspoon honey or agave syrup
Shred all the salad ingredients to small ribbons and mix in a bowl.
Combine dressing ingredients in a dish and stir to mix. With local limes I used about equal amount of lime juice and oil but you need to taste and adjust the dressing.
Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss to distribute throughout.
Pile in a salad plate and serve immediately (it can sit for just a little while)