Their Balls Are Bigger Than Their Brains – Rated PG 6.5*

*halfway to PG 13.

No, my dear food oriented friends, this has not suddenly turned into a porno website, fit only for the “internude”. This comment was part of a Wild Kingdom focused, extremely fervent conversation that took place near the end on our long-winded but always fascinating evening at Olea last Friday. The speaker, I believe, was Lynne, our environmental law specialist, but our anatomical specialist, Dr. Jones, certainly had many lively and vivid remarks on this very topic as well, all when the chit chat took a wild swing from the subject of beavers munching one’s treasured foliage to that of our well-endowed (but stupid) little squirrel friends destroying tulip bulbs in their quest for easy nut accessibility. But more on this heartwarming topic later.

This was my third week of Restaurant Roulette dinners in a row, and while I always enjoy the dinners themselves, the wallet implosion certainly reached its climax at Olea, but thanks to the kindly people I was dining with, who insisted I use the $20 coupon I presented at the end of the meal all for myself, my frightening tab of $50 went down to a somewhat digestible $30, but there was no economic relief in sight for our dear friends the Nunn-Jones’, who were seen leaving the restaurant in barrels (classy wine barrels though).

Even more frightening than the economic toll the three consecutive dinners was taking on my bank account, however, was the mental toll writing all these out of control reviews was taking on my halting and hesitating old head cavity, I was really dreading churning out my treatise of gluttony for a third weekend in a row.

But the lively conversation at Olea took care of that, and now I have subject matter galore. So thank you, thank you, thank you, my intelligent but somewhat “out there” dining companions for providing such wonderful and weird fodder for my little dining tabloid; this dinner featured some of the kookiest subject matter ever, and that’s saying something amazing in itself.

We were a party of eight at Olea, me making a mad dash to the restaurant, fearing Pearl parking, then finding a space less than two blocks away with moderate effort, then sitting by myself like a doofus for about 15 minutes at a table for eight in a very brightly lit room, waiting for others to arrive at approximately the correct time. The layout by the door at Olea is a strange one, featuring a big curvy entreeway that swoops around the bar area and into the dining room, with the reservation desk an isolated podium over in the corner that most people miss when they come in the front door. I mention this because on my way in I heard a disembodied voice talking to me as I headed on down the ramp to the table, but looking around I saw no one and thought it was just those nasty voices in my head again. Fear not, however, it was only the hostess waiting to escort me to the empty table with panache and fanfare. (That’s what I’m going to name my Pearl District eatery, Panache and Fanfare).

Anyway, back to me sitting alone toward the back of the dining room, feeling like a bulldog at the poodle convention. As is my annoying habit, I sat right in the center of the table (I generally do this so I can hear and see as much as possible, although I know you all think I do this mainly to be the center of attention). That correct notion aside, I felt pretty stupid sitting there by myself, icy water cascading into my glass, baskets of bread around me, menus everywhere, and wait-people hovering. (I really only want to be the center of attention when I actually know the people surrounding me). Finally, the waiter appeared, asking if I was waiting for other people by some chance. I think this will be my new off-week RR game, book tables at fancy restaurants for eight, then have only me show up, to see how the various places react. I could just keep changing seats during the meal, and alluding to those who went off to find the restroom).

Mercifully, Tori and Dave soon arrived after having a pre-drink drink at the bustling Paragon across the street. Like everyone else who joined us at this dinner, they seemed intrigued by the inside of the restaurant. Olea spent its earliest years as some sort of warehouse or manufacturing plant, but about 15 years ago was revamped into a restaurant space and opened as the very good gulf coast restaurant, Bima. If memory serves me right, Bima was the first of these Pearl District revamps, soon to be followed by Oba!, Fratelli, Holden’s, and the Mazana Grill, all in the same 2 blocks. A multitude of other Pearl retrofits have taken place over the years, but this space was the first I remember which turned a large, dusty warehouse space in a somewhat deserted part of town into a happening eating establishment. I remember the first time I walked into Bima I was wowed by the black walls, the sophisticated but stark furnishings, and the soaring skylighted room with original plank type ceiling. As the Pearl grew into the upper crust monster it is today, the owners of Bima decided to quit while they were ahead, shuttering their giant warehouse restaurant to concentrate on their tiny little small plate place, Holden’s, around the corner (the two restaurants are still connected by the hallway to the restrooms).

After Bima, 1338 NW Hoyt became one of those cursed restaurant spaces, weird Japanese and Mexican places trying to fill its large shoes and failing miserably in short order. A little over two years ago Olea opened, and when I entered its environs one happy hour evening I was amazed by the transformation that had taken place. Gone were the charcoal walls, now replaced by cream colored walls, white linens and white wood at the open kitchen area, and small accents of colors like orange, red, and spring greens. Bima was always dark, mysterious, and modern. Olea is classy, bright, airy, and European. Besides having a large bar and ample main floor dining area, it also boasts a private room area and a second floor dining space, almost all empty on this strangely quiet evening in the Pearl. In fact, for most of our meal we were the only people seated in the back third of the restaurant, probably a good thing judging from much of the creative conversation that later ensued. When I last visited Olea, however, one year earlier for an RR happy hour, it seemed like the place had been packed on a Wednesday night, so I can’t help but wonder if Olea has fallen on hard times due to all the PD competition. If this is the case, it’s a sad one, as Olea has the potential to be a first class restaurant if they would just tweak the service a bit and scale down the prices $4 of so per item.

Looking at the menu, it was quite obvious they have done tweaking in this realm. If you look at Olea’s website, it boasts of small plates and full servings inspired by the cuisines of France, Spain, and Italy, and meant to be shared, similar sounding to a tapas bar. For the first couple of years the menu here was gigantic, and you could select almost anything on the menu in the small or large size. Many of the prices for the large items were stratospheric, but at the same time, there were many smaller dishes that could be combined to keep your tab somewhat reasonable. Nowadays the choices have dwindled considerably (but this eatery still has a good selection of items, particularly heavy on seafood) but all only come in one size, and nothing is really a bargain, $7 being the cheapest item (hummus with chick-pea pita bread) most starters hovering in the $12 range, and most entrees averaging $25.

Okay, I did it. I actually talked a bit about food in the first 50 paragraphs. But enough of this food nonsense for the moment, and on to more of my endless twaddle about everything else under the sun.

I felt so much better once Tori and Dave arrived, because now the omnipresent waiter would have someone other than me to bother. There was something about this guy that rubbed me the wrong way. He was certainly trying to be a good waiter, and was extremely polite and professional and such, but he also had bad timing and was somewhat pushy when it came to serving and removing drinks and taking orders and such. Tori, kind people person that she is, actually wrote on her dining slip that the service was pretty good, and the waiter accommodating, but on at least two occasions our dear friend Tori had to have thought the waiter was a royal pain in the butt, as he kept coming back asking for her order before she had even looked at the menu, as she was busy conversing with others around the table. Particularly irksome to me, I had to practically fight to keep the last 1/3rd of my excellent Mojito, as the waiter kept coming back to snatch my glass when there was still ample liquid. Finally I had to grab the glass and suck up the dregs when he insisted he was going to remove the glass from the table, come hell or high water. When drinks cost $9, you can bet I’m going to take every last sip. When I finally surrendered my glass to the waiter and he asked if I would like another one, and I said no thank you, one was amply strong, that still didn’t stop him from trying to sneak another onto the table when I was in the restroom. Luckily my kind co-dinees made him take it away. Also curious, that second glasses of Lemonade were brought to the table after they were declined, but luckily these seemed to be a free refill situation. This server had serious drink issues though, or was hard of hearing when the talk turned to beverages.

Soon after Tori and Dave tucked into their wine and beer, Lynne arrived, strolling the pleasant few blocks from her Couch St. office, and carrying her big blue bag of semi-melted ice for a shoulder ailment. (This aforementioned melted ice to be dumped into the gutter outside Olea after dinner with much fanfare, and a weird alarmed reaction from the waiter and sidewalk diners). Not long after came our next arrivals, magenta haired 3 days later birthday celebrating Aurora, Joe, and their extremely nice friend from Seattle, Maria, checking out this dining with strangers thing. That made seven out of eight, although our dear little friend Sara’s chair was to remain empty for some time. I had confidence in Sara, however, she seems the diligent restaurant goer, and one not to disappoint her co-diners, so I kept insisting, Sara will be here. Even I was beginning to doubt this, however, after 30 minutes or so, but then finally the hostess approached our table telling us Sara had called, and she would be joining us in about 15 minutes. Good old young Sara, I just knew she would come and fill her place. It turns out Sara’s absence was the result of reservation time confusion?, being stuck on the wrong side of a long train, and an accidentally extended beauty nap until 7:15 (although she looked great afterward). Can one go into a beauty coma? Now that’s what I need.

Anyway, this seems a good time to “tuck-in” Sara’s comments on dinner at Olea ….

Here I go again, comparing Portland restaurants with New York restaurants, but really, it’s a compliment. So here’s the deal: NYC restaurant mainstays have failsafe menus that include two fish (salmon and usually bass or halibut, or ahi tuna), one pork, one chicken, one vegetarian, one lamb, and one or two beefs. Once I travelled to Vail, Colorado, and looked forward to new dishes, and surprise surprise, it was a NYC redux menu. No longer surprised, I saw that Olea had the same menu formula, except they had three fish choices! Let me also say that I was about an hour late into dinner, so did not get an appetizer to make up for what seemed banal choices in front of me. Why so late? First, I overslept from my nap, and second, despite a 15 minute record drive to Pearl from my house in SE (don’t tell the cops), at ten blocks from Olea, I had to wait for the slowest train in the history of trains to cross, and almost started crying because I had just called Olea to say I’d be there in a few minutes which was excruciatingly turning into a good 30 minutes. Then I remembered the Texas trains that though seemed to be done crossing would double back because the whole exercise was to get the three mile long train onto a rerouted rail that yes, crossed back in it’s entirety. So as I sat in the industrial Pearl area (my usual foolproof shortcut), I decided that tears were not yet warranted, and to think positive.

Once I got to Olea, (and saw the menu) positive thinking went out the door, so I based my dish choice on the vegetables and side accouterments, which in some restaurants may actually not mean anything once the food is served as the side dishes are really just a drizzled plate ornament. Olea’s halibut dish caught my eye because of the celery root (aka celeriac) mash and the shitaki mushrooms. The sweet potato fritters sealed the deal, and here I went, just settling. Good gods, I got a great dish after all! The halibut was moist and flaky and subfused with the flavors of the large shitaki pieces, and the good heaping of mash. Sweet potato-anything I like, and these fritters balls were full of flavor and non-greasy. Yummy! (For more ball information, ask Dr. Tori). I was in food heaven. I was also in wallet hell because the pricey dish did not give me the usual pleasure of a follow up midnight snack. Oh well, sometimes good food trumps feeding latent hunger. I guess positive thinking really does have nothing to do with how good your food will be, and when I got home, I burned all my self-help books!

The restaurant itself made me think of a great place for a first date, as it was a remodeled warehouse space with a complex but non-fussy aesthetic, big space which still managed to create a cozy atmosphere. The service was awesome, with a quite attentive and very friendly waiter without an added false sugary sweet angling for our friendship aka big tip. No dessert here, as I spent my other money on the excellent Mojito, with mint and basil leaves which added a bite to the well balanced drink (not too sweet). The best part of the evening was that the remaining five of us (three left early to continue on a third day of birthday celebratin’) got into a heated discussion of the relative size of squirrel’s balls. Relative to what? To anything! These things are ginormous! Jackie will surely fill you in on the rest of that discussion. Needless to say, this took no less than 30 minutes to settle, and now I no longer wonder why we are always the last to leave a restaurant. Until next time!

Thank you Sara. But how much did the waiter pay you and Tori to say those nice things about him? I think in my case the endless struggle to keep and finish my mojito was just too much.

By the time Sara made her stylishly late arrival, most of us had ordered and at least partially and at most fully consumed out starters. Aurora, Joe and Maria were having starters only, as they had more plans later, and as you can probably surmise, weren’t exactly wowed by Olea. Here are their remarks, which they helpfully wrote out for me on the back of their dining slip. Evidently the Cosmos were “not very flavorful”, and I must say, they just looked like Cosmos. They didn’t really comment on their “cannelloni” (asparagus, shimeji mushrooms, ricotta, crispy leeks and red pepper coulis), but Maria was wowed by the look of everything and the great presentations, although she thought the big dishes might be trying to disguise not large portions. Their vegetable flatbread pizza was “very lacking in flavor and unimpressive”, but they found the cheese plate “very good”. They enjoyed the fact that the bus people constantly refilled the baskets with “the very good bread”, but overall thought the spices “wrong for the Mediterranean”. (I’m not too sure Spain, France, and Italy actually share spices myself). Their overall impression …. “Mediocre at best”. Well, I’m glad we won them over this time. Well, at least Olea didn’t try to sneak in any meat this time.

Speaking of meat, Dave went all out with his starter , the “affettati misti” (oh brother, what a pretentious name for a plate of cold cuts) which according to the menu was assorted salumi, arugula, and seasonal fruit. From what I could see, the assorted “salumi” was decent prosciutto, some salami, some cappicola, and some big folded mortadella. The fruit was a really sweet and ripe quartered fig. And arugula was, arugula. I won’t say I tasted this appetizer, since gobbled about half of it was more accurate, as it was placed right next to me. I agreed with Dave that as always, the Mortadella (Italian baloney) tasted weird, it’s always pretty gross, but I liked the fig and the prosciutto (although I told Dave it really need that authentic hairy leg presentation to make it extra special). Tori also fed me adequately with her selection of the “calamari fritto misto” (what’s with all these mistis and mistos, it’s like eating at Dairy Queen) which the menu described as rock shrimp, preserved lemon, asparagus and bagna cauda, a sauce (not to be confused with barracuda, which makes a lousy but dangerous sauce). Most of the deep fried morsels I had looked to be squid or green bean, but whatever, they were light and tempura like. It’s disgraceful, however, how much of these people’s appetizers I ate, especially as I paid for not one iota. So thank you Tori for taking those three extra patients (flesh-eating disease, small pox, and whooping cough), to feed my food addiction. Tori did manage to squirrel away (tee hee) her “squash carpaccio” a beautiful, and I’m told, delicious presentation of pepper and corn relish, baby carrots, and tomatillo. Hard to believe I had any room for food of my own, but I quite enjoyed my rather unusual “baby arugula salad” which consisted of grilled white peaches, prosciutto (still no fur) and moscatel vinaigrette. I think I managed to give out a couple of tastes, and got thumbs up reactions (although that suddenly reminds me of another finger pointed in my direction during the evening. Sadly, I can’t remember what that was in reference to, I wonder if the perpertrator remembers? What was all that digit waving about, oh healing one)?

After the appetizers were largely assimilated, and after the multitude of really scary talk about stucco (or in this case stuccno), and a comparison of crenellations, fenestrations, paraphets and pilastrations, or some such terms that people who live in plaster-a-paris houses understand ( I personally think it was some sort of demon talk!), it was on to the entrees, now that Sara and her Tasmanian devil-like appetite had arrived.

The entrees were quite well received, the exception being Dave’s “White Stripped Bass” which was described on the menu with accompaniments of honeydew melon, crispy prosciutto (not hairy, but fried to crisp slivers) and pickled red onion. I think these other items would have enhanced the preparation were the bass grilled, but to me the fish looked flash fried, and Dave said the taste was quite lacking in zip and spiciness. Better received was Sara’s aforementioned “halibut fish and chips” which as she mentioned was extremely moist, and whose sweet potato fritters made both Lynne and I think of turkey stuffing (not that I was tasting things again). Tori highly enjoyed her oven roasted chicken with asparagus, fig and fennel gastrique (????), asparagus nage, and crispy parma ham (not that old combo again). Her comment was that she would highly recommend Olea, that “all the food was yummy”. Also quite impressed was Lynne, who had the lasagne with grilled spring vegetables, house made ricotta, roasted red peppers, and spinach cream (redolent of black olives I thought, not that I had some, of course). She thought it was light, unusual, and delicious, and said she would gladly revisit Olea in the future.

As for me, I once again shrugged off my mantle of predictability, and my reputation for always having beef, and had pork instead (I didn’t want to shell out $29 or $31 for beef having already spent $9 each on mojito and salad). Both the filet with spring onion butter and the rib eye sounded delicious, although I question the rib eye’s side of “melted onions”. How is that even possible, I’m pretty certain onions do not melt. As for my “Pork Chop” (fancy name), it was of double thickness, grilled, and served with sour cherry chorizo rum chutney and aligot potatoes. Aligot, do you suppose this is the French word for thick and moisture lacking? I must ask Sara, little Miss “I read Perfume, Story of A Murderer in French”. Well, whoop de do, I once had a French Poodle, chose a hotel in a village called St. Pe , and said Je ‘ne sais pas constantly in college level French, and to this day, still can’t spell it.

Leaving my extreme sophistication aside for a moment though, and getting back to those potatoes, they tasted fine, but were awfully compacted and moisture deprived. People kept saying things like “I taste blue cheese,” but mainly I just tasted dryness. Tori said she thought it was because this particular batch of potatoes was highly glutinous, but I think she might have just been on one of those suddenly prevalent LSD trips (see her later conversation regarding squirrel “packages”, and the fact that she admits going to Burning Man). The pork chop was pretty good, but someone needs to explain to Olea what restaurants like Ciao Vito and Acadia already know, if you have a thick honkin pork chop, it will probably taste better if you don’t cook every bit of juice out of it. As long as you mention to people beforehand you are doing it, good quality pork can be cooked to medium doneness and still be totally safe. The flavor was good though, although a bit extra porky, and I enjoyed the sauce, I just wished there would have been a bit more with the rather dried meat and foam rubbery to swallow mashed potatoes. (But I still liked them. Potato Buds, anyone?) As Sara mentioned, no one wanted to fork over more for dessert, although Dave did seem positively in love with his cup of coffee, and tried to get everyone in our general radius to try it (I think the hostess and one of the bus boys balked).

Okay, okay, enough of all this food talk, back to what you really want to hear about, well-endowed squirrels. I’m really not certain of the initial topic that meandered around to this subject (because it’s really not a self-generating sort of conversational topic), but it might have been when Tori offered Lynne a taste of her chicken (please don’t read anything into that) and Lynne said she didn’t eat chicken, and I mentioned, oh, Sara doesn’t either, then Sara started talking about how she had eaten some chicken the previous weekend, and then maybe started discussing how she decides which creatures are eatable, then I think I lost the thread of conversation for a bit, as I might have been discussing art with Dave. The next thing I heard Sara was discussing Tasmanian Devils and how they would rip the flesh off of you (I didn’t hear if she’d eat one or not), then we were talking about how aesthetically unappealing hyenas are (only saw them in the zoo) and Sara was making blood curdling Tasmanian Devil and hyena noises (those were good mojitos) and then Lynne started commenting on the fact that she is really on the outs right now with our state animal, the Beaver. It sounds like Lynne has a wonderfully nature loving house, but is having issues with Beavers swimming up to her yard and munching down her carefully nurtured trees and bushes, not even using them to built their darn dams, but leaving them there after destruction for her to have to clean up as yard debris. I personally am not that familiar with Beavers, I’ve maybe seen them once or twice in my life, and realistically this is not a problem I will probably have to deal with, unless they start swimming in through my toilet.

This led to a subject, however, I do have more experience with, how squirrels wreck your flower beds digging in the softened earth to hide their caches of nuts. I think Dave said something about squirrels wrecking Tori’s tulip beds, which is not a problem with me, as I must bury my bulbs deeper, but countless times I have gone outside during this planting season to find the annual I had just spent $4.00 for lying dead, roots exposed due to squirrel forage. Just yesterday I came home to find that the little nut-lovin’ buggers had dug up half a planter of tiny flowers I had been cultivating from seed for over a month. (Pimpernels- the flowers, not the squirrels). So I could relate, even when Tori said something about squirrels being so dumb they buried nuts and couldn’t find them again. Although I like to think my squirrels are more intelligent than that (I’ve seen them scampering around in little letterman’s sweaters), I still could agree with how problematic squirrel destruction could be. The information I had a harder time computing, however, is when Lynne fervently proclaimed “THEIR BALLS ARE BIGGER THAN THEIR BRAINS!!!!). This remark was met with such hearty approval, I felt all four of my dining companions must have completely different relationships with our furry little friends than I. (Oh Dave, how could YOU be looking there?)

I admit, I was somewhat deprived growing up, for some reason we just didn’t have squirrels in my Felony Flats neighborhood, maybe we just couldn’t afford them. Even in my early 20’s, when I moved up to Mt. Scott across from Lincoln National Cemetery, there were still no squirrels anywhere. It wasn’t until I moved downwind of Mt. Tabor that I finally had squirrels scampering around outside my abode. And now, living below Rocky Butte, I have an army of them. And I admit, I like them, and I cultivate them in my back yard with practically everything but Festivals of Nuts. But Lynne and Tori seem to know so many things about squirrels I don’t know, and have different relationships with squirrels than I do. When I go into my backyard, I commonly just hand them a nut, but it never works the other way around. They’ve never shared their nuts with me. Sure, Lynne had that flimsy excuse about them scampering around her roofline outside her windows, and perhaps Tori’s white coat made them think she was a squirrel proctologist, so they spread-eagled, but I fear these women know so much more about squirrels and their gonadal structure, I’ll always be an intellectual midget in their presence.

Anyway, for any of you who have been to an RR dinner where the subject matter has gotten a little bit wild and perhaps the tiniest bit out of control, you can probably imagine how the conversation started pulsing and spasming at this time, and how a table of lawyers, doctor, and other somewhat adultish types turned into a bunch of giggling 15 year olds with a million rude comments on squirrel’s reproductive organs and other high class subjects. At one point the waiter was innocently approaching, only to be met with yet one more joyful repetition of “their balls are bigger than their brains”, and was soon to be seen beating a hasty retreat to where he had issued forth from. Yes, this was yet another 3 hour dinner for Restaurant Roulette, but largely because the last 30-45 minutes had nothing to do with the meal, they were just extended conversation of squirrels and other wildlife’s sex parts. None of us wanted to leave until every joke was made, every snide comment was remarked, and every male squirrel was seen slinking off, tail-end heavy, and not able to fit its big bushy tail between its legs, or so I’m told.

Another dinner with really good food, for the most part, and some really scary conversation, which is always the best part!