Eat This Now

Tailored Tapas

Does the latest Spanish-inspired eatery to hit Portland pass muster? It does if you customize your meal just right.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the December 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

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TAPAS MENUS, BY DESIGN, are destined to please just about any gastronome. Why? Because they offer a uniquely broad array of choices that give you a strong sense of control when it comes to your dining experience. It’s not just that you’re able to select among a multitude of small, inexpensive plates, which can range from a mere dozen olives to an entire crock of braised oxtail. It’s that you can order any number of them, in any order, and often in large or small servings. The result is that you can tailor just about any tapas restaurant to your own preferences. It can be either the kind of place where you enjoy merely getting a glass of wine and a bowl of almonds—or the sort of joint suited to accommodate you and your 10 closest friends for a long, languorous repast.

For me, Lolo, a relatively new tapas outpost in the Alberta arts district, opened by Giorgio Kawas, owner of Giorgio’s in the Pearl, is neither. It would be the former, were I a fan of Lolo’s “pickled” almonds, but there’s something about their soft, cold, mealiness that just doesn’t satisfy me the way warm, roasted, crunchy, spiced nuts would. And among the other 20 or so savory items on the menu, few have successfully seared themselves into my culinary memory to warrant an endless feast among friends, either.

That said, Lolo’s cocktails are usually superbly poured; the Spanish-focused wine list, though small, is quite impressive; and each time I’ve visited, I’ve sampled at least a few acceptable dishes. In other words, if I order right, there’s a place for Lolo somewhere in my broad tapas spectrum.

Set in a convivial dining room that’s painted in earthy reds and browns, with a chalkboard listing the day’s fare and a cushy bench lining the back wall, Lolo certainly offers a welcome step up in fine dining for the Alberta neighborhood (joining a couple of other ambitious establishments, like moody Ciao Vito and classy Alberta St. Oyster Bar & Grill, which recently re-opened). While the service can be slow at times, all of the servers I’ve encountered were equally warm and friendly—eager to please, but not cloyingly so. And they’re good at guiding you through Lolo’s ever-changing menu, which includes about ten tapas that range from $4 to $9, along with eight or so raciones (entrée-sized dishes for sharing) that range from $14 to $19. Were it up to me, I’d ration the raciones and add more small plates, for that’s where Lolo seems to shine.

A simple bruschette topped with fresh pickled sardines, black olive tapenade and parsley becomes an excellent foil for the restaurant’s albariño, a crisp white wine from Spain. Similarly, the tortilla española impresses—more potato than egg, which is the way it should be, and seasoned with just the right amount of salt. Under the raciones heading, the stewed oxtail with turnips, potato and swiss chard that’s served in a bright yellow Le Creuset crock satisfies with delightfully savory succulence.

Far from soft and tender, however, are the skewers of octopus and bright red sweet piquillo peppers. I wanted to like these, because I so love both ingredients, but the small pieces of octopus were cold and chewy, even chalky. Pork albóndigas (meatballs) were similarly disappointing—one night a waitress blamed their raw appearance and inedible saltiness on the fact that they were made with cured pancetta (hence their pinkness), but my dining companions and I weren’t entirely convinced.

And, sorry, but the cod cakes served here don’t even come close to the quality of the divine version served at Toro Bravo, the wildly popular tapas restaurant that opened up on NE Russell just a few months before Lolo.

Other dishes—like, for instance, a simple salad of sliced apples, local romaine and incredibly creamy Spanish blue cheese—taste, for lack of a better phrase, just fine. Still others veer a little too far toward the boring side of the flavor continuum. An iron skillet of heirloom squash, wild mushrooms and Brussels sprouts underwhelmed me: It was, in essence, a $14 plate of cooked vegetables. Prawns with white beans, chorizo and parsley were undeniably refreshing but quite bland.

And yet, I’ll probably go back again. Not because I think I’ll have the most memorable meal in town at Lolo, but because I still get to define my experience here fairly loosely. And sometimes a glass of wine, a couple of fresh pickled sardines and a comfortable chair are all I need.