Last year, when my birthday rolled around, it was an off-week for Restaurant Roulette, so Pam, my friend from work whom many of you know from the dinners, and I went to Roux for our shared birthday festivities on a Friday night (before and after our birthdays). Pam and I have worked together for quite a few years now in often stressful times, and since our birthdays fall within a week of one another, we try to have a nice meal together to celebrate, since we both love food and dining out.

This year, I decided that when the RR dinner closest to our birthdays rolled around, I would pick a restaurant I really wanted to try out, and which I also thought Pam would enjoy. We both love Toro Bravo (like almost everyone else) but that place is just too difficult to get into with more than two or four people at a normal dining hour, so I decided an intriguing choice would be to try the other new tapas place in town, Lolo, the second restaurant by the owner of the always well regarded Giorgios in the P. District.

The crewI guess my enthusiasm for checking out Lolo wasn’t shared by the majority of RR, as we had a relatively small (but extremely select) turnout of six. I suspect at this time of year, you have to expect many people are running around having pre-Halloween fun on a Friday night, so that might explain why our last RR dinner had a record setting 15, but this time we could eek out merely six. Whatever the reason, all of those who couldn’t join us missed a great (but somewhat spendy) dinner. So thank you Sara, Glenda, and especially our always wonderful Marnie and Leo, (making their first joint appearance since late Spring) for making Pam’s and my shared birthday event at Lolo a night to remember, and one I will look back on fondly for years to come. (Special thanks also to RR members Aruna and Sara for their special kindness in acknowledging my birthday in their fun individual ways. As a person lacking in the family department, such acts go a very long way, and make me really happy that I started this group 15 months ago, I’ve met some really nice people along the way.)

But enough of these sappy spewings, and on to Lolo.

On my two visits to Spain, I loved visiting the tapas bars for a quick, cheap lunch full of variety, and in Spain at least, lots of fresh seafood. Ever since this time I have bemoaned Portland’s lack of genuine Spanish inspired tapas restaurants. We have certainly dabbled in the occasional tapas spot, places like Tapeo, where the owner might know what true tapas are like, but not necessarily execute this knowledge in a particularly genuine way. Real tapas bars are places you go in, see a brightly lit counter of small plates holding delicacies that make about 1/4 or 1/3rd of a meal, and pay about two or three dollars for each. Many things involve raw or barely cooked seafood, and you also have a choice of plates of various meatballs and small chopped salads. For a short time there was a little place over on Hawthone next to Pastaworks called Bar Pastiche, co-owned by the people behind Pix and Navarre, and while they at least got the notion of tiny plates at a really cheap price (and featured those wonderful Pix desserts) the execution wasn’t very consistent, and I’m sure they had a hard time keeping the case stocked with all the little items and turning everything over before it became inedible (compounded by a menu very centered on fried items). So Bar Pastiche soon turned into Pix alone, and tapas were banished.

Suddenly Portland seems to have an influx of small plate based restaurants, from Tabla on NE 28th, to Patenegra in NW industrial, to critic’s darling Toro Bravo on Russell, to the newest kid on the block, Lolo, on NE Alberta. And having eaten at two of these places, and heard much about the other two, I must say, Portland still has no genuine tapas restaurants. They are all too expensive and too elaborate. What we do have, however, are some very fine Spanish inspired restaurants that feature a variety of small plates on their menus, two of the finest being Toro Bravo and now Lolo.

As is typical of the ever changing Alberta strip, stay away six months, and you can plan that when you return lots of spaces have changed over. It seems like most of the little art spots are gone now, but new restaurants pop up all the time. About three years ago, when I used to visit Alberta quite frequently (okay, I know that’s quite awhile) the space at the corner of 29th and Alberta was a pretty kitchy used clothing place called “Frock”. Now it’s an upscale eatery called “Lolo“. The outside of the building serves as a reminder of the old days, but the frocked-up interior has been left far behind. This is actually one of Alberta’s good eatin’ blocks, Bernie’s has anchored the west end for years now, my favorite pizza by the slice place, Bella Faccia, is towards the east end, and right next to that now is Lolo. Although the ill-fated Alberta Oyster Bar sadly bit it, I read it’s scheduled to reopen soon with better financing, now if I could just remember what used to be in that big gutted space in the center of the block (can anyone tell me? These kinds of things make me crazy!!)

Now, as many people know by now (especially since I keep yapping about it), I think Giorgio’s is a really nice restaurant, it’s especially lovely inside on a winter night, and the rustic Italian fare is first rate. I probably would not put it in my top 100 places to eat, however, mainly based on the fact that the portions are quite small and the prices quite high. If I plunk down $25 for a bowl of pasta, I want to be full when I’m done eating it, especially if I’ve had an expensive salad before that and my appetite still isn’t sated between the two of them. As Giorgio’s is a quality place, however, I still had no trepidation about checking out Lolo. I knew the food would probably be good, and from the on-line menu, I could tell that by selecting small plates you probably could choose several items without breaking the bank (too bad I didn’t stick with those items).

Obviously, Mr. Kawas (sorry, I can’t actually remember if his first name is actually Giorgio, but he’s a friend of Sara, so he’s okay by me,) likes the color yellow, as one of the nicest things about Giorgio’s is its lovely yellow walls, and sure enough, Lolo has yellow walls. I like the space, it’s warm and friendly, but pales by comparison to the dynamics of the Toro Bravo space, which just screams (in an understated way) sophisticatedly rustic. Of course I couldn’t actually see that much of the Lolo space, as it was packed to the gills and about as loud as a pulsating garbage truck. Which is really not meant as a complaint, I’m glad to see it’s doing so well, I thought maybe it was suffering from TB (Toro Bravo, not the disease) being so close and loved by millions. Evidently not so, it looks like Lolo is doing extremely well, although it’s awfully hard to judge a place with such slow table turnover (and I’m thinking no reservations for smaller groups). Sara, as the first to arrive, had selected a nice table by the window, so that way we could check out all that crazy Alberta St. action (like Stewie endlessly cruising the block looking for that perfect parking space.) And although Lolo looked like the sort of space where you would be cold in the winter sitting by a window, it was actually toasty warm. So the heating system seems great, but the acoustics need a lot of work, it was loud, loud, loud.

Marnie and Leo with hornsUpon sitting down, it was pointed out to me that two of my favorite people in the world, Shannon Spence and Jeanne Tobe, real estate titans (ReMax- NE Broadway) were seated directly behind me. You’ll never meet a kinder or more unique guy than Shannon (with Jeanne following right behind him), so if you ever want to buy or sell something real estate-ee, they are your men (except for Jeanne, who is your man in a womanly way.) So this evening was turning into quite a party, wonderful people to dine with, funny, delightful people I never see enough of sitting right behind me. Once Stewie successfully anchored and spewed his contents our way (Marnie and Leo) bearing flowers and equipped with horns (Leo now, Marnie later), our dining party began. Sara, Pam and I decided we would split a pitcher of Sangria, which came in a wine decanter loaded with diced fruit. I’ve never seen Sangria served quite this way, almost more fruit than liquid, and while the flavor was mild and pleasant, I was rather bothered by the room temperature of the concoction. Yes, I know red wine is not supposed to be chilled, but Sangria is almost always icy and refreshing, and the neutral temperature added a minus for me. Pam and Sara were very pleased, however, and I was impressed by all the different fruits Sara was naming while consuming various chunks. The rest of the table drank wine, (and as seems typical in these Spanish restaurants,) served in relatively small pours.

Like at TB, it wasn’t that easy to decide what to eat, as there were so many unusual and relatively “foreign” dishes listed on the menu. And these so called “tapas” places make it even harder by having several small plates at somewhat inexpensive prices, inspiring you to want to order more things but consequently unsure how much food you will receive. We also sat directly in front of one of the two specials boards which added a considerably larger variety to the list of approximately 22 items already on the regular menu. Sadly, our specials board only had the items listed, however, not the prices, which were listed on the specials board just out of our line of sight.

chipsI had decided weeks ago that the first thing I would order would be the house made “potato chips with sea salt and rosemary” certainly worth spending $5 on, and supposedly one of the best things on the menu. As Marnie would (rather cornily, I might add) comment, they were a veritable Simon and Garfunkle of fried potatoes, covered in parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The bowl was big enough for sharing, and luckily Sara and Pam helped me make a dent in my bowl, while Marnie and Leo gobbled their’s quite heartily. I am actually a streak potato chip eater, sometimes I got to have them (especially around the winter holidays covered in homemade dip) and other times I can take them or leave them. Luckily, as of late, I’ve been off the chips, but that dip time is right around the corner.

To compliment my chips, I also selected “saffron onion soup with crispy onions.” I’m really not a huge saffron fan, I prefer it more as an complimentary flavor than a dominating flavor, but I love unique onion soups, and this sounded like it would fit the bill. As I suspected it would be, the soup was a golden yellow and pureed into thickness, with tiny onion rings strewn about the center of the bowl. The saffron really was only a complimentary flavor, the major flavor being that of sweet onions. It was unusual, good, smooth and rich. Glenda and Pam both had “beet salad with mixed greens and sherry vinaigrette,” a beautiful composition of greens and beets. Both seemed extremely happy with their selection. The last small plate at the table was Sara’s “banderillas of olive, anchovy and pepper”. It was a pretty presentation, on little plastic swords, with various greenish shades, and I’m told the flavors were a lovely combination, but it’s probably good it only cost $4, as it was a rather antlike mini-serving.

Not only did I welcome back Marnie and Leo as their wonderful selves on this evening, I also welcomed back Marnie’s astute food commentary and pleasing writing skills (THANK YOU so much Marnie for contributing, especially on a week when you are out of town and dealing with difficult family issues. You’re the greatest!) Here’s what Marnie had to say about Lolo

My love for potatoes, especially those in fried form, knows few bounds. Jackie’s teaser posts for Lolo kept mentioning potato chips on the Tapas portion of the menu and it struck me that I don’t think I’ve ever seen fresh made potato chips offered as a course in a restaurant. Sure, one might find a few decorating a dish, at a fine establishment, but Lolo cut to the chase and offered them right atop the Tapas portion of the menu. Rockin.

banderillasLolo’s menu isn’t a vast sea of options, and their approach to Tapas is not quite what I’ve experienced before. More rightfully, I think they are simply appetizers, but call them whatever you will, the two that I tried, the Banderillas and the potato chips were both flavorful and delicious. The Banderillas were skewers of olives, anchovies and peppers, and while I’m usually not a fan of anchovies, they blended seamlessly with the other flavors for an overall very balanced and tangy taste.

The chips, well, what can I say? They were fresh, crisp and just littered with herbs of all sorts. Thank goodness Lolo is not walking distance from my house or I’d likely be dropping in daily for a fix. I’m about 3000 miles away right now and daydreaming of a little taste (and by little taste, I mean gorging myself until I can’t move.)

Ox TailLeo ordered the Ox Tail for his entree, which was served in a small crock, with a smattering of root veggies. The flavor was rich and the meat was tender and flaked easily off the bones. If you aren’t opposed to a few vertebrae on your plate, this dish is a fine option.

I opted for one of their many specials; a nice sized slab of big eye (Tuna) served with sunchokes. At $25 a plate it was a pricey option, but it turned out to be quite delicious. Still, I think it was a bit spendy for what I received. I thought Jackie’s entree, of the same price, was a far better option. What can I say, Jackie sure knows how to pick meat.

With the dessert list placed prominently in my sight-line, I felt compelled to order something to pair with my usual after dinner coffee, which is a rarity for me. I usually fill up on dinner and hardly ever have enough appetite to find the prospect of dessert appealing.

flanLeo opted for the Caramel Flan while I went for the Churros. Leo’s flan was adorned with apples and a bit of a sort of apple chutney. I found it a bit blah, but I’ve never been much for flan. Leo thought it was fine, but we both agreed that the Churros were the better dish. These delicious little treats were encrusted in cinnamon sugar and served with a pot each of dark chocolate and honey for dipping. Paired with espresso, the dish was a delightful way to finish the meal.

Overall, we found the experience really positive. We’ll almost definitely be going back for more. The service was excellent, the wines were delightful and when you have such excellent company (and two birthday girls to boot!) one can’t help but feel great about the experience. But even with all that left out, all the food was good and much of it was excellent. Oh and I really like the potato chips.

Thanks so much Marnie, the world sadly needs more satanic types like you and Leo. (Just so no one gets the wrong idea here, no, I am not into devil worship (another religion not suiting my fancy) but Marnie and Leo just looked so adorable in their matching Halloween (???) horns.

But, back to my blather on everyone else’s entrees and such …

So far, the prices were relatively reasonable for a new, high end restaurant, but the entree prices (raciones) amped it up considerably, although the standard menu items were a much better deal than those larger plates listed on the special board. Although the idea of eating oxtails seemed to make a couple of people at my end of the table blanch (not me, I’m neutral when it comes to oxtails) I saw big crocks of them being served all over the dining room, and Glenda and Leo both were enthusiastic to try them. (It turns out Glenda is a big oxtail fan, and has some in her freezer right now). Although I have a reputation for being big on beef, (and probably soon, as big as a beef) the oxtails really didn’t tempt me, I’m not overly fond of stewed meats, even of a steerish variety. Overcooked meat is just not my thing. Glenda told me she really enjoyed her food at Lolo though, and I think Leo liked his oxtails (correctly described as “stewed oxtail with root vegetables and swiss chard”) as well, judging by all the bones (cartilage?) on the plate between them.

Pam’s dish, which looked like a plate of meatballs, was actually “pork albondigas with ricotta gnocchi, oven dried tomatoes and almond sauce.” It sounded like sort of a Spanish pasta and meatballs dish, although I’m not sure what to make of the almond sauce. I know she liked it though. Sara, who kindly shared with all interested parties, (actually, everyone at the table did this) selected the “prawns with white beans, chorizo, and parsley.” She mentioned how delicious it was with every bite.

Marnie and I both chose selections from the specials board, and that seemed to be where Lolo raked in those big bucks, her “big eye tuna” seemingly extremely fresh, barely seared, and rather on the small side for $25 bucks. (Although all high-end tuna here seems to run big bucks.) The bite I had of Marnie’s was nice, but I’m not really a big tuna freak (just a big freak, mainly) and save most of my uncooked tuna eating for the sushi bar. I actually ordered my entree having no idea how much it would be, but since it was my birthday dinner, I was throwing all caution to the wind (something I felt rather guilty about later, not knowing some extremely kind souls were going to be picking up my (and Pam’s) dinner tabs. And different kind souls at the next table picked up our dessert tabs, so we made out like bandits. Gluttonous, overfed bandits.)

Anyway, me being me, eater of those evil, cancer causing meats, I selected the “skirt steak with potatoes bravas”. At least I think it was listed as skirt steak, not hanger steak. Sometimes I get these clothing oriented cuts mixed up. Anyway, whatever it was cost $25, and was probably a slightly smaller sized hunk of beef than my beloved coppa steak at TB, which only cost $12. It was good though, expertly prepared, and went well with the delicious “potatoes bravas” underneath, which seemed roasted and moderately cheesy. And although the portion seemed pretty modest for the price, the serving was completely adequate, particularly after the potato chips, onion soup, and the tastes of everything else I had tried. So I was pretty stuffed.

Which naturally, didn’t stop me from having dessert. Afterall, it was a special occasion. (A meal.) Actually, the whole evening seemed to have a very festive feeling (much inspired by the return of Leo and Marnie, and their bread puddinghorns, of course) and for probably the first time at an RR dinner, everyone selected a dessert. Pam and Sara decided they would share the seasonally inspired “pumpkin bread pudding with pomegranate and caramel sauce.” This very pretty treat was just loaded with pomegranates, although I was told later, it was good but not excellent. (It seemed a tad austere for bread pudding, hunks of pumpkin bread covered with pomegranates, but rather lacking in the creaminess I like in bread puddings.) As Marnie mentioned, Leo’s “caramel flan with seasonal fruit was fine, but like her, I’m not a big flan, creme caramel, panna cotta fan, so it wouldn’t be churrossomething I would dream about all night, which is what I do with most desserts, naturally. As there were way too many for her after her big meal, Glenda handed her “churros with chocolate and honey” around the table, Mousseand having had a couple of bites dipped in the melted chocolate, I must say, they were very churros like (but should churros really ever cost $8, unless they have gold leaf piped into the center?) My dessert choice was the ‘bittersweet chocolate mousse with almond cookies.” The mousse was relatively chalky, which is exactly how I like my mousse, and the delicate little almond cookies with a nut perched daintily on the top of each were extremely nice and homemade tasting.

The service was good, and the waitress friendly, although initially the first round of food was somewhat slow in coming. It’s one of those places where they are great at filling your water glass though (I started to type “water bowl”. Do you think this in an indication I spend too much time with my dog?) I would hate to be trying to get in without a reservation on a busy night though, all the people seated around us were there when we got there, and left right about the same time that we did, so tables turn extremely slowly (maybe from all the small courses) and some people were standing by the door, waiting for a table, almost the entire time we were there. And it’s not a particularly tiny place.

I liked Lolo a lot, I liked the atmosphere, the interesting menu items, the location, and the way they cook food (seems a good thing for a restaurant, don’t you think, knowing how to prepare food?) I would gladly go back there again (especially on another occasion where I didn’t have to buy a thing.)

That being said, I still like Toro Bravo better at this point. Although the whole mood at Lolo seemed like one of happy people eating good food, it still doesn’t seem as special as a meal at Toro Bravo, where the staff seems to just radiate friendliness and enjoyment that they work at a very special place. And Toro Bravo has those wonderful large sizzling pans of Paella, cheaper, at $17, than all of Lolo‘s specials and many of their raciones. Lolo does have some inexpensive things to eat, but Toro Bravo proves you can serve very similar items, just as good, and still have them cost dollars less.

They are both really good restaurants though, and particularly if you’ve tried Toro Bravo out and enjoyed it, check out this Spanish newcomer. Just be sure to bring a few extra bucks … and maybe some earplugs.