Naked Dinner

Olea engages all the senses.

Every once in a while—not often, but often enough to prompt a sensory readjustment—you come across a dish with a glaring hole in the flavor profile that somehow fills itself. The sharp edges are there—a razor line of salt or a burst of sour or the balm of sweet—counterpoised with lusty spices or a flourish of herbs. But there's something missing. You're left wanting. The dish is hollow.

And then all of a sudden it isn't. You discover wholeness. You're satisfied.

You come across these things, and you're reminded that few of us make proper use of our senses. They atrophy in a mudslide of fleeting high-definition images, relentless text messages and the rancorous buzz and murmur from ear phones. Maybe that's why chefs are inching into the forefront. Maybe people sense a kind of deliverance, a re-acquaintance with something deeply primal. Maybe chefs are the new priesthood, one charged with giving heart to raw sensuality.

Cooking is a celebration of nudity. Just as a taffeta cocktail dress set off by a pair of villainous Jimmy Choos can breed a new appreciation of the curve of a bare hip, so too can rubbing blood-red flesh with black pepper, garlic, toasted coriander and mustard seed cultivate a lust for naked tenderloins.

Olea has nakedness. It has a naked broth. It simmers in the tagine del mar. Tagines are North African stews that are slow-cooked at low temperatures, traditionally in a clay pot bearing the same name as the composition. Tagine centerpieces are those elements that effortlessly take to braising: fish, beef, fruits and olives. Sassiness comes from garlic, saffron, cinnamon, peppers.

Olea's tagine del mar is a thing worth unraveling. It comes in a covered white ceramic dish. Lift the lid and drink in the plumes of fragrant steam that flow from the thin yellowish fish stock and wine broth. Tiny beads of fat glint on the surface. Bits of tomato, some lemon and garlic lurk within, along with whole kalamatas, some bobbing and breaking the surface. In the center is a yellow piece of fish.

Spoon up a bit of the broth and notice the gaping gap in the palate. There's no middle mouth. There's the brine edge of the olives, the muffled simmer of tomato acids, the bloom of saffron. But there's a void between these edges. It's hollow, this broth. Now take it with flakes of fish. The dynamic completely changes; the dish is reanimated, the chasm filled. The fish fills in those gaps, and the broth rushes in to frame its delicate, slightly sweet flavors. It harmonizes. The tagine sings. It's through such nakedness that flavors and aromas grow in importance. Or is it the other way around?

More than a few things work this way at Olea. Pesto fileto salad, rich ruddy strips of filet mignon ribboned over a sheaf of arugula with two leaves of romaine protruding like rabbit ears out of the mix of tomatoes, pine nuts, artichokes and Parmesan, is splashed with pesto vinaigrette that seems content just to hint of itself. Where does such alluring restraint come from?

Olea is the newest piece of work by Pascal Cayet, author of Lavendou Bistro Provençal, creator of the late Chez Gerard on McKinney. Because restaurants indulging in French cuisine have become bastards of sorts in Dallas (few purely French restaurants remain in these parts after the demise of Jeroboam, Le Paris Bistrot and Chez Girard), Cayet siphons culinary juices from Spain, Italy, Greece and North Africa. There is even South America to further hide the French—or so it seems.

Ceviche can range from adequate to wretched. It's attractive enough, scallop, shrimp, salmon, snapper and tilapia slumped in a generous heap topped with fanned slices of avocado, but that avocado is hard and chewy. The fish is loose, flaccid and sinewy. The citrus bath is dominated by orange juice, more sweet than brisk.

A second try brings a reversal: The avocado is tender and creamy; the fish is firm and lush. There is a sharper citrus edge, yet there could be more.

But other marvels intercede, relegating ceviche to fleeting memory. Sourdough garlic bread, feverishly red from a drenching of garlic butter stippled with saffron, is crisp and rich. A slotted plate accompanies the gazpacho, a space reserved for diced tomato, chopped onion and croutons to stir into the slurry at will. It is cool, spicy and brisk, but yearns for more vigorous seasoning.

Olea is a tangerine room with the necessary rusticity to denote its crisscrossed Mediterranean roots. It's slathered in browns and olives. Among the focal points is splashy Tuscan pottery. Aft the dining room is a low-slung wine enclave with bottles posted in racks and vertical displays. But what makes for a satisfying Olea experience is its strip mall piazza outfitted with an arbor of sturdy cedar beams and slats. Lanterns and ceiling fans hang from the timber.

You hear whizzing Mercedes and Lexus engines and slamming car doors, but this won't detract from the bouquet or the profile of flavors in the clos la coutale Cahors. Cahors is a wine grown around the old city of the same name in southwestern France, just north of Toulouse. Once upon a time, Cahors produced fleshy, deeply hued tannic reds with a stamina that kept them vigorous for years. Now the wines are lighter, more youthful, but with alluring finesse teased from a simple blend of Malbec (80 percent) and Merlot (the remaining 20).

Pair it with the Marquez tabbouleh, rich juicy lamb and beef links laced with harissa sauce, a blend of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil.

Grilled sardines, four whole ones silvery and black, bones and all, are brushed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice before they're grilled into a crispy char. Press them with a fork and clear juice runs freely, loaded with smoke and sea spray.

Braised lamb shank in red wine and tomatoes, fluffy currant couscous nuzzled up to the meat, is simple, hearty—a nude shank.

But then you'll come upon those things that are best left alone. Foie gras, posted on toast, thick smears of the seemingly requisite balsamic nearby and a half-strawberry neatly sliced and pulled into a pinwheel, is overcooked. The lobe is cased in a veneer as brittle as sun-dried vinyl. Plunge through the casing and the liver begins to cream if you go deep enough.

The real distresses come with the veal—a thick veal chop with porcini mushrooms and a drift of spinach risotto. It is raw pink beneath the grill stripes. The meat quavers and the fat shivers in its looseness when nudged. It is no better after allegedly being further toned on the grill. Sometimes nakedness can repulse.

Still you can easily end on high notes. Skip coffee. Instead order a tall glass of pomegranate orange hibiscus tea—refreshingly brisk with a slight grip. Olea's tiramisu is among the best we've tasted in these parts. The soft sodden cake easily releases its layers of coffee, marsala, rich mascarpone and chocolate, the flavors radiating outward from the spongy texture like bicycle spokes, reassembling in the mouth, dressing and undressing, all the way down.

5809 Preston Road, No. 578, Plano, 972-378-0203. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday. $$-$$$

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