Spanish Small Plates, Glenda’s Shrunken Head, and Darkness

It seems like the dinners we have at restaurants that have small plates are always some of the best, because everyone orders several items and is usually eager to share. Recently, I had a hankering for some Spanish small plates, and while Toro Bravo is always tops on my list, with the group dynamic, forget it. There’s another good “tapas” (sort of, not really) place in town though, and while the bill always seems to add up more rapidly there, much of the food at Lolo is delicious and interesting. So, as I had not hosted a dinner at this Spanish inspired Alberta joint since the fall of 2007, off we went.

IMG_1509The two times I’ve been there, Lolo has struck me as a fun and bustling neighborhood eatery, but that might just be because the acoustics are pretty bad, and it always seems loud and hard to hear. Both times I was at Lolo, I was seated in almost the same exact place, in the front facing the west wall, so  I really didn’t get a good idea if Lolo is being hurt by the slow economy or not, as I could not see the other tables or the front door. They seemed busy enough, but as previously mentioned, that could have been an illusion because of all the noise. I mainly mention this because the last time I was at Lolo’s sister restaurant, Giorgio’s in the Pearl, I was struck by the fact that they didn’t seem very busy on a Saturday night. Who knows though, I think the Pearl is a late dining sort of area, and Alberta doesn’t exactly strike me as the sort of area where Mom and Pop rush out for dinner at 5:00 PM sharp. I did notice when we left Lolo, however, around 10:00 or so, it seemed pretty quiet.

I guess the reason I blather on about this is because I can’t help but wonder how well any of the restaurants do on Alberta with so much competition. In the next block over, excellent Sandy Blvd.Thai outpost, Chaba Thai, has recently opened their second location, in the space where Vita Cafe was for years. IMG_1525This makes about the sixth Thai restaurant between here and lower Alberta. It’s hard not to imagine Chaba doing well, their food is a cut above the rest and their prices are reasonable, but how many Thai restaurants does one street need (unless it’s in Thailand?) I would assume Siam Society would be the most hurt by a place like Chaba, as Siam is top dollar fancy Thai and times are rough, but I would consequently think that Lolo, a more expensive eatery, has to be hurt by all the cheaper food outposts along Alberta, several in its own block, in fact. Ciao Vito, Siam Society, and Lolo are all high end restaurants, and just the fact that all three have survived for several years within approximately 10 blocks of each other must be a sign that Alberta still enjoys a robust restaurant scene. If only some of those galleries would come back!

One rather odd thing I did notice at Lolo on this evening was that although their on-line menu indicates otherwise, the only entree type options to order were all paellas and fideos (basically paellas made with noodles rather than rice.) Also, all the nightly specials were small plate size (although some were quite sizable.)IMG_1527 Previously, you also had the option of burgers, chicken breast, or hanger steak. I don’t know if this is a sign that Lolo is trying to become more genuinely Spanish, or if it means they are trying to cut back on their food expenditure by trying to simplify things a bit. Whatever the reason, this resulted in everyone have tapas and small plates for their entire meal, because although a couple of people were tempted, $38 is a lot of money to spend for paella. (Especially considering the Paella at Toro Bravo is only around $20, and excellent.) I’ll just take the high road and assume Lolo is trying to be more authentic these days, although a real Spanish tapas bar would never have $12 tapas (although Spain’s economy is going down the tubes.)

This was one of those really great dinners where I have a couple of old timers, some middle distance seasoned pros, a newish semi-regular, and three new people, all who actually made it to the dinner as planned. So a good variety, and everyone seemed to love food, always good in a restaurant group.IMG_1510 Our newcomers were also a interesting bunch, and they are all components the group has never had before, Andrea, a veterinarian from SW Washington, Arcoma, a Naturopath with Native American heritage, and her husband Humberto, a travel agent from Venezuela. I must say, having now met Humberto, and having enjoyed the company on many occasions of long ago member Leonardo from Uruguay, these South American men always come across as stylish, soft-spoken gentlemen. WHY HAVEN’T I VISITED THIS CONTINENT!!! Are there some of these guys left down there?

Another BIG development on the Restaurant Roulette scene (besides exciting new members!) Glenda, our fashion doyenne and extreme radical in many ways, has a new hairdo!!!IMG_1508 As almost anyone knows who has ever experienced our group or checked out the blog, Glenda is our most recognizable member, mostly due to her plentiful hair, her classic glasses, and her ultimate fashion sense. Perhaps Glenda’s plan was to fight the ecological disaster going on in the Gulf region anyway she could, so consequently she jumped our board with those salons and such donating hair to suck up that evil oil, and consequently donated a whole boatload of hair all by herself! Seriously though, this is not a woman who seeks out the nearest SuperCuts when having her bob modified, so her new do is extremely stylish, a tiny bit unusual, and 100% Glenda. We wish her well with her new look. I just hope this doesn’t mean she’s planning on having the back of her neck tattooed, now that it’s an exposed area.

Originally I remember reading that the concept behind Lolo was to build the food around Spanish wines and other drinks of Spain, so needless to say, Lolo’s wine list leans heavily on several regions of Spain. Heidi and Andrea both started by ordering wines they were completely unfamiliar with, Heidi’s red and Andrea’s a dry white, but from the comments I heard, it seemed like both were happy with their selections. Glenda, back from the brink of martini’s for now, had her early days regular, a sparkling glass of wine. Humberto, being manly, had Scotch, Arcoma, perhaps being Naturopathic, had tea, Julian, as always, was hitting the Coke, and Liz was in ecstasy over her very dark Brazilian beer.IMG_1507 As for me, it was back to the cucumbers, in this case the simply named Cucumber martini. I must say that this was a somewhat more pleasing cucumber elixir than the overly limey concoction I had experienced at Gilt Club, but I think that Lolo should probably rethink the rather unusual fresh thyme rim, it was a tad plentiful and awfully messy, and it was hard not to imagine I was drinking from a really dirty glass.

For some reason, several people, including me, wanted Octopus on this evening (Sauteed Octopus, shaved celery, farga olives, piquillo pepper confit) so naturally, the was the one dish Lolo was out of, which sent several of us scrambling for options. Luckily there were quite a few other seafood options, as there should be in any spanish themed restaurant.

At least three of us had the “Skewers of olive, anchovy and Basque green pepper) incredibly salty swords of these festively displayed ingredients.IMG_1513 Unlike when I have sardines, or herring, and I think, “wow fishy,”, as I popped these morsels into my mouth, my one thought was, “wow, salty.” As a person who doesn’t really crave salty, they weren’t exactly my dream come true, but I still liked them, as they really did seem so authentically tapas like.

Heidi, a lover of fine cheeses who has a husband who is not a lover of fine cheeses, asked if anyone would be interested in sharing Lolo’s Artisanal Cheese Plate (Artisanal Spanish cheeses, quince and accompaniments) and as fate happens, Andrea, sitting right beside her, is also a cheese fan (or wait, maybe it was the other way around, and Andrea asked and Heidi shared, hmmm.) IMG_1515Whatever or whomever, it looked like a nice selection of cheeses, served with a little bowl of crostini toasts on the side, as well as some chopped up fruit. I had one bite, my major thought being, “whew, sheepie.” Although I am a lover of sharp cheddar cheeses, I still have many issues with tangy goat and sheep cheeses, and one thing I learned on my travels there, Spain is a minefield of sheep’s cheese. That being said, I do love the Manchego cheese soaked in rosewater served at Toro Bravo, it’s so mild, I always order it.

As I know he’s a big frites fan, I recommended to Julian he order the housemade potato chips, “Potatoes with sea salt and fried herbs” a signature starter at Lolo since they opened. Whomever finished these in the line seemed to have rather a heavy hand with the herbs (just like on the rim of my martini) so Heidi was still removing bits of chopped herbs from her upper torso at least an hour later (and some other foodstuff she managed to fling on her jacket. For once, it wasn’t me!) Anyway, in the hustle and bustle of the table of eight I really didn’t hear if Julian liked the chips or not, or notice if they were all eaten up, but I remember last time they were a big hit.

Arcoma and Humberto ordered something that I never heard what it was supposed to be, but as they looked like maybe cod fritters, my guess would be “Cod Cakes with mojama mayo, and chopped romaine.” (I saw later, by looking at the receipt, they were actually croquettes.)IMG_1517 As they were at the end of the table, and didn’t have bellowing voices (unlike that loudmouth Glenda) I didn’t hear too much of any conversation between Arcoma and Humberto, except for about 1/2 of the comments they directed right at me, so I don’t know whether they enjoyed these mysterious deep fried spheres or not, or any of their food. Later I saw them having what I am relatively certain was “Caramelized Scallops, spinach, pine nuts, golden raisins and saffron sauce.” I think they enjoyed these, but once again, I can’t state this definitively. I did get the impression they liked Lolo though, so we’ll assume not too much they ate seemed truly awful or inedible.

Andrea ordered “Crostini Toasts with Wild Mushrooms and Manchego cheese,” and it seemed like the thing she most enjoyed on the evening, thin toasted bread slices with soft cheese slathered on and a nice selection of braised mushrooms on top.IMG_1521 Later she had “Sauteed Prawns, garlic, chillies, white wine and lemon juice,” but these weren’t at all to her tastes, and she ended up contributing them to the table’s community food stash. It seems like shrimp is one of those items frequently ordered that people are most often disappointed by at the dinners, either you just don’t get enough, or they are rather blah. From all appearances, Asian restaurants are really the only ethnicities that consistently know what to do with a good shrimp. IMG_1528 I remember long, long, long, long, long ago, when I was growing up, we used to go to this vaguely Armenian place called the Kitchen Kettle (it was a nice restaurant for those days.) I used to love to order their wonderful, large shrimp scampi, rather simply grilled, but doused in lovely garlic butter. Shrimp has been all down hill for me since then, except for a few tasty morsels on trips South of the Border.

Another item that three people ordered, but Glenda contributed to the table’s community food stash, was “Cold-smoked Trout and Halibut Cheeks with strawberries” (and random green stuff.) I don’t quite know why Glenda rejected this smoked fish plate, I was one of the three to order it, and I thought it was good.IMG_1518 I admit it was a tad confusing, reading this item of the special’s board, it was really hard to tell what sort of food preparation you were going to receive, a salad, a cold plate, or what. It turned out the be one of those deconstructed thingees, with austere little morsels of the various items spread prettily on the plate in an artistic red, green, and pinkish pattern. I am a lover of fine cold smoked fish, and don’t manage to get much, so I enjoyed it, but perhaps Glenda took exception to the fact that there was no melding of the ingredients. Or maybe this particular smoked fish wasn’t to her tastes. Whatever the case, it ended up eaten by almost everyone else. Earlier Glenda had eaten a relatively simple, but large, romaine salad with a garlic and lemon dressing, so maybe she was just nervous she would get too full before her heartiest dish arrived, so didn’t want to waste her remaining appetite on something she wasn’t thrilled about.

Heidi and Julian were sharing some meatless dishes, as well as some other meaty items Julian had on his own. Besides the potato chips, Heidi also had the Papas Bravas, a traditional Spanish tapas generally consisting of potatoes, red pepper, paprika, vinegar, and sometimes tomato.IMG_1520 As she was clearly on a potato roll (remember those, potato rolls? Can you still buy those?) she then had the “Ensalada Rusa – Oregon Albacore Tuna Confit, organic lettuce, new potato and mojama mayo.” I think she said this was here favorite dish of the night. Having experienced a somewhat similar dish that they serve at del Inti, the yummy Peruvian place up the street, which has main ingredients of tuna, potato, and aioli, it’s not hard to believe this was delicious.

Julian, sating both his pescatarian and carnivorous sides, branched out from Heidi’s seafood and potato smorgasbord, adding a “Handmade Short Rib Empanada, with crushed avocado and red pepper piperada.”IMG_1526 I think he liked this well enough, but as he had already eaten quite a bit, and had something even heavier approaching, he ended up sharing a good portion of this empanada. I can’t even remember if I had a bite or not, but Liz was enchanted by this dish, and helped Julian out by eating about a third.

Our youthful friend Liz has what I would consider to be a relatively small frame, so I was a little surprised she didn’t explode by the end of the evening, as she had some pretty hearty bites going, and also had several tastes of other’s food as well.IMG_1519 She started off with the anchovy spears, which she seemed to really like, then moved on to the delicious “Chicken Skewers, Moorish spices, with sherry syrup.” I had at least a couple samples of these chicken morsels, and I thought they were really good, and even a slight improvement over a Middle Eastern spiced roasted chicken I’ve been making for many years now. I did taste several of the same spices in both this recipe and mine though, garlic, cumin, paprika, allspice. This was certainly easier to eat than a whole roasted chicken, and a bit more juicy.

We clearly had a trend going at our end of the table, as four of us in a row had one of the nightly specials, “Wild Boar Short Ribs with Slaw.” Julian, Glenda, Liz and myself obviously all thought this sounded intriguing, and while it was one of the most expensive small plates at $12, it was also one of the richest and most filling. I’m always suspicious when I see Wild Boar advertised in these parts, because when is the last time you saw a wild boar charging around here? To me it always sounds like someone serving pork but trying to disguise it as something exotic. This was certainly not pork, it had a distinctly earthy and more game-like flavor than any pork I’ve ever had, although the roast suckling pig I had one time in Madrid was verging on scarily inedible, and might have come closest in flavor.

This is not to say that the Wild Boar Ribs were bad in any way, I ate every somewhat fatty bite without hesitation. IMG_1522 They were most certainly unusual however, and if prepared by a less skillful kitchen than Lolo’s, I might not have been happy eating these earthy tasting porcine objects, they might have tasted way too gamey for my palate. All four of us seemed relatively pleased with the ribs, and how notably tender they were, and a couple of people mentioned they enjoyed the really chunky slaw, although I’m not a big slaw fan myself. I did notice that all the rich food finally started to slow Liz down about the time she got her ribs, so she ended up taking most of her boor and slaw home. She seems to be our “take home gal.”

When dessert rolled around, not too many of us looked at the menu and thought there was much “to die” for. Andrea really wanted to split the flan with someone, and although originally I think she was contemplating a different dessert, Liz decided that half a flan would about fit the bill with what appetite she had left, so she and Andrea shared that. Glenda also had the flan. None of the three gave this particular flan rave reviews. IMG_1531 As I’ve been on a chocolate with salt kick ever since that wonderful thing at Castagna (only at the dinners, never at home) I had the Chocolate Mousse with sea salt and almonds. Several folks had a bite and thought it was pretty good, but as one of the ingredients had a coffee flavor, while it was decent, I wouldn’t put it high on my chocolatey restaurant dessert list (I’m not a coffee gal.)

When it was time to pay, and view the bill, something rather odd happened, all the lighting above our table went out. Just what I need, something that makes it even harder to read the bill.IMG_1529 What was really odd was the waiter’s comment, that the lights had also went out the night before, plunging this area into darkness, and they had not figured out yet how to get them to turn back on. Hasn’t Lolo heard of electricians? I know they are expensive and everything, but it makes your restaurant look a bit cheesy, especially if you are a nice place like Lolo, if a good portion of the lighting goes out and you can’t get it back on, at least when people are sitting in that area eating (or paying, in our case.) Maybe we needed to put another quarter in the slot.

Another oddity, once most of the struggle with paying was over (never easy with a bigger group and my occasional post-work fried brain. Hmm, fried brain, sounds like a Chinese dish) someone, Andrea I think, mentioned that she read or someone told her that Lolo would have issued separate checks for an additional dollar. Is that a dollar period (I doubt it) a dollar a check, or a dollar a diner? Sure, it would have made things easier, but just like paying for bread (which we did here, but it was only $1) I can’t help bristling when restaurants charge you for whatever others gladly offer for free. I can understand why a place who hand writes checks, like Ciao Vito, would not want to go around offering multitudes of checks. Judging from how sophisticated and well annotated this computerized bill from Lolo was though, I think it’s probably pretty easy for them to offer as many checks as you need for free.

That gripe aside, I still like Lolo, the food is great, and gets more interesting all the time, and it always comes across as lively and fun. The bill does add up faster than at Toro Bravo though, and while the food selection is good, it’s generally not as awe inspiring as TB. Lolo does have a real advantage though, you can actually get in somewhat easily, and they don’t have all the restrictive rules and possible credit card penalties that Toro Bravo has for a group.IMG_1516 Tapas are such a fun way to have a meal, and in Spain, a really cheap way to eat with tons of variety, I wish Portland could have a genuine tapas bar, especially one that is open for lunch, where you pop in, point at little items that cost $1-$5, are handed a tray with some dainty plates of food, and go and stand against the wall or maybe grab a stool and eat until you are full, usually before your money runs out. In Portland, your money almost always runs out before your appetite (or your wallet at least takes a sizable hit) and you can never enjoy the fun a good tapas meal can offer until 5:00 PM or later. Oh, to be in Barcelona right now, instead of rainy, rainy, rainy Portland (hey, I don’t usually complain, but it’s almost mid-June!)