June 13, 2024


Epicurean Science & Tech

Oliva Tapas Opens As Part Of Columbia University’s Expansion Into Harlem

4 min read

The revival of Harlem has been significantly driven by Columbia University’s opening of its sprawling, Renzo Piano-designed Jerome L. Greene Science Center, with a good deal more expansion planned over a 17-acre site stretching from 129th to 133rd Street, with plans for 10,000 students to live in the area called Manhattanville. It should be noted that Columbia is no interloper here: The school has always (since its founding in 1754) owned this land next to the Hudson River, and the changes, costing $6.3 billion, will upgrade everything in an area that, when I attended Columbia in the 1970s, was a grim no man’s land.

 All those scientists, staff and students, as well as those who live in the neighborhood, will need somewhere to eat, and with the opening last month of Oliva, Harlem is getting a restaurant as innovative as it is spectacularly located within the glass-and-steel ground floor space at the Center. At its helm is veteran chef Franklin Becker, whose career I’ve followed for decades, and this may well be his finest work yet.  

Becker’s time in Spain inspired him to do a modern tapas restaurant, and, believe me, no tapas place in Spain looks anything like Oliva. Becker’s menu stays pretty true to tradition, although you can see his creativity at work in every dish, and, to my delight, he imparts more intensive flavors and seasonings into his food than I have found even in San Sebastián tapas bars, where garlic and chile peppers are not much in evidence.

Of course, Becker, along with chef de cuisine Chris Strelnick, need do nothing to the nonpareil Spanish hams beyond slicing them very thin, like the jamon de bellota  and paleta Ibérico por Cinco Jotas ($36 and $21). The same goes for the array of cheeses (five for $20) like Monte Enebro goat’s milk, oveja negra sheep’s milk and Mahón curado cow’s milk. There is, of course, the expected toasted bread soaked with olive oil and fresh tomato ($5), requisite at every Catalan table, and the tuna-stuffed peppers ($8) are plump and juicy. Caballa crudo ($12) is raw mackerel, dressed with tangy blood orange, olive oil with a dash of jalapeño. Montaditos (two for $10) are wonderful small tarts of various ingredients. 

      The hot courses, somewhat larger than the cold, are very satisfying, starting with the irresistible croquetas de jamón fried golden and crisp, savory with ham and oozing béchamel ($8). Bacalao (cod) croquettas are treated to a luscious aïoli, while an assortment of setas (mushrooms) arrive smelling of rosemary and garlic, with the flavor of shallots ($12).  Grilled octopus has now become a staple everywhere in New York, and Becker’s, with potatoes, soft peppers and sweet onions ($26), is certainly fit for a main course, with the added visual appeal of being served on a hook called an espetón.  

Another Spanish classic, gambas al ajillo ($14) is a must-try, with good meaty shrimp in a sizzling, rich garlic bath. Socarrat is the highly desirable crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the paella pan, and at Oliva it appears as a main ingredient along with seafood, a tasty sofrito and aïoli ($45 for two), while another classic, fideuà, the angel’s hair-thin pasta cooked like paella, is done with lump crabmeat cooked in wine ($21).  Pollo con salsa pimiento y Almendras Marcona ($16) is an unexpectedly rich dish of succulent chicken that has absorbed a pepper sauce enriched with almonds, and if you crave beef, you’ll love the churrascos-like falda de turnera hanger steak with assertive blue Cabrales cheese and sauteed onion.


    For dessert the fat but very light churros fritters ($10) are dusted with sugar, which you dip into hot dark chocolate. Crema catalana ($10), which the menu calls “the original crème brûlée,” is true to form, while the chocolate cremoso olive-oil torte has a saline edge together with almonds and caramelized toast ($10). 

      It’s a capital idea at Oliva to start off with a craft cocktail or house sangria, or perhaps a Spanish beer. But the wine list is impressive and extensive, packed with an array of regional bottlings not readily found elsewhere, although it’s not easy to find much under $75.

      While enjoying this colorful, beautifully composed food, you can’t help but gaze up and down and around at the glassed-in space that looks out on Broadway. It’s a pretty good spot from which to watch the inevitable and exciting transformation of West Harlem. 


Manhattanville Market

3227 Broadway


Oliva is open  for dinner Tues.-Sun.


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