Note. This restaurant closed in 2009
There has been a lot of buzz around town about Olea, which opened last June in the old Bima space in the Pearl District. The space: think Bima gone blond – bright walls, bright lights, huge bar area up front. Very open/airy, a welcoming space. Nice glass-enclosed room in the back that you can reserve for special events. Crisp white linen tablecloths give a bit of an elegant feel. The food is best described as Mediterranean with strong French influences.
As you may remember, I did ‘an early impressions’ when they first opened, and wasn’t too impressed with the food. Now they have been named as “one of the best new restaurants in America” by Esquire magazine. With press like that, I had to go back. Unfortunately, it took me five visits to figure out what I wanted to say in this review. Everything from the space to the menu, to the food, has a very LA, corporate feel. Chef Scott Shampine is formerly from the French Laundry and Hurley’s where he was chef de cuisine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he knows what he’s doing; only time will tell. I am afraid he’s a bit too ambitious; that perhaps this is behind some of their problems. A recent menu had over 38 items. Don’t reach for Mars if you only have fuel to get to the moon.
The service has ranged from poor, to overbearing and obtrusive, to excellent. It seems to depend on the luck of the draw. There were times when I just wanted the server to go away and let us eat. On other visits we felt like waving a flag to get service. The sommelier was just okay. One night we brought our own wine. He didn’t have a decanter available, so we had to wait until one was freed up and then he never came back to finish decanting the wine; we had to do it ourselves. Another issue from every meal – the kitchen tends to be very slow getting things out. Fortunately, the staff usually tries to make up for it. Several times during interminable waits between courses, they brought out things to keep us from getting bored – several times a little watermelon sorbet (needed a bit of acid, but otherwise nice). Most recently we just sat and waited 20 minutes between courses. I’d like to be able to blame these delays on the crowding brought on by the Esquire article, but this happened the week they opened, three meals after that, and a final meal just this week. I don’t know what is going on, but something has to be done.
The menu is poorly designed, difficult to read, difficult to figure out on first glance. Rather ostentatious in a ‘we’re so cool’ sort of way. Most dishes are broken out into small and large portions. The small sizes are plenty big when you order several items and can be a good way to try a variety of things ‘tapas style’. Most things are pretty much a la carte, so you’ll need to order sides. It would be a really nice place to do a tasting menu, but I doubt the kitchen could pull it off at this point.
Here’s a recent list of the extensive menu. The items with two prices are for small and large portions:
Marcona almonds $3/7
Crispy frico & ceci – parmesan powder $4/8
Olive oil $4
Pomme frites with banyuls aioli $6
Grilled dates with Parma ham, vanilla-black pepper oil $5/9
Bibb lettuce, Roquefort dressing – Roquefort croutons $8/12
Salad Lyonnaise with rapini – pine nuts, sherry vinegar $5/8
Marinated baby leeks $6/9
Mixed green salad $5/8
Chanterelle “cappuccino” – espresso cream & creamed chanterelles $10
Flat Breads and Crespelle
Chickpea pita bread – hummus, extra virgin olive oil $7
Tomato focaccia – telaggio cheese, white Truffle oil $8
Pizza of the day $10
Charcuterie, Salumi & Cheese
House pate with cornichon, grain mustard, and deviled egg $6/12
Salumi and sausage – finocchiona, genoa salami, prosciutto, sopressata, mortadella $5 each
Affettati Misto – assorted salumi, arugula, seasonal melon $16
Cheese selections $5 each (big selection)
Pasta and Polenta
Brown butter orecchiette – espresso ox tail ragu, rapini, $10/16
Mascarpone shallot tortellini – smoked capon, endive, onion consommé $11/17
Trio of risotto b.l.t – seared scallops, tomatoes, pancetta $18
Spaghetti caprese – bocconcini, heirloom tomatoes, basil $9/16
Shellfish & Fin Fish
Oysters half-shell, – green apple mignonette, cucumber $14
Paella stuffed mussels – saffron broth, chorizo, soffrito $12/18
Steamed cockles – harissa, basil, garlic, olives
Roasted monkfish – sweet corn ravioli, chanterelles, green peppercorns $20
Lobster pot pie – Parisienne vegetables, lobster, truffle cream $35
Whole salt crusted branzino – heirloom tomato, tomato-cockle butter $35
Meat and Poultry
Roasted harissa chicken – cinnamon couscous, green olive tagine, preserved lemon $18
Steak frites, hanger steak, French fries, shallot butter $22
Braised bacon – green apples, Brussels sprout soubise $18
Crispy pork shank – smoked tomato polenta, milk sauce $20
Short rib bourguignon – potato puree, pinot noir $18
Spit roasted Kobe Delmonico – potatoes aligot, espresso natural jus $35
Seared duck liver steak – honey comb, apple, vanilla gastrique $18
Thyme roasted duck “three ways”, ravioli, breast, stew $20
Alsatian cassoulet – duck confit, garlic sausage, smoked pork chip (serves 2) $30
Molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream & pine nut caramel $7
Pear & frangipane tart with pear ice cream & red wine syrup $7
Frozen nougatine – pistachios, chocolate sauce $7
Butternut squash panna cotta – pumpkin bread, sage-brown butter $6
The grilled dates were just awful on my first visit ($5/$9.00). Being of the masochistic type, I still ordered them every visit. One time they were dried out on a burnt skewer of rosemary, other times they were cold and gluey. However, on the last visit they were actually quite good, cooked just enough so they weren’t cloyingly sweet, just right; offset with the rosemary, ham, and a little pool of black pepper oil giving a blance between salty and earthy flavors. The sauce added a pungency, with everything working perfectly. It’s too bad they can’t pull this off every time.
Salads are authentic and always excellent. The Lyonnaise comes with the required coddled egg, good frisee, little (mostly) crispy/smoky lardoons, and is perfectly balanced. I’d have this again and again ($7/12.00). The Bibb salad with Roquefort is terrific, with just the right amount of dressing so that every leaf has a light coating without being soggy or overpowered. The accompanying Roquefort croutons are lovely little puffs filled with melting cheese – just terrific ($8/$12.00).
Not so the chanterelle “cappuccino” – espresso cream & creamed chanterelles. As with many dishes here, the presentation is a bit overdone, with the espresso cream being poured from a pitcher into your soup tableside. The whole thing is a bit silly, as the cream is not light in texture and adds little to a rather pedestrian soup that was somewhat lacking in flavor ($10.00).
Crispy frico & ceci (cooked cheese and crispy chickpeas) was an interesting dish, it tends to be common in Spain. I found it disappointing. Though some people liked the chickpeas, this just wasn’t my type of dish, though the few pieces of frico were excellent – crisp and not too salty. I think I might have liked it better if there had been more cheese ($4/$8.00)
The spaghetti caprese was very good, just what you’d expect, loaded with good fresh tomatoes, good olive oil flavor, and fresh basil. The pasta was correctly cooked and everything came together nicely ($9/$16.00). I really liked it.
Cinderella pumpkin (Rouge Vif d’Estampes) angolotti is the new ‘in’ ingredient, (though it has been grown in France for over 100 years). It is suited more to decoration than to cooking, because its flavor tends to be very subtle. Here though, the flavor comes through just fine, meshing with the mascarpone. The sauce was excellent, onions, shallots, sage brown butter, and pumpkin, but the raviolis themselves were mushy and overcooked which ruined the dish. All this work ruined by lack of proper cooking ($12.00). Too bad, it could have been excellent.
The roasted harissa chicken was excellent. With a spicy North African sauce made from chili peppers, garlic, cumin, and other seasonings, it can be difficult to have it come out balanced. Olea does it right, flavors were just right and had a somewhat exotic taste. Two little ceramic cups accompanied the dish, one full of a pungent green olive tagine, another with some whole toasted almonds. One of the best dishes I had at Olea ($18.00).
A strip loin came a bit chewy and cold. To her credit, the server seemed to notice we were not happy with it and insisted on taking it back. It soon returned at the proper temp which greatly improved the flavor. In addition she brought a new hot serving of fries, which have improved by leaps and bounds since Olea opened. They are crispy shoestring style, and done just right. Unfortunately, they are served in a wide metal ‘bucket’ and tend to cool very quickly – nothing worse than cold fries. Another gripe, the portion of fries is huge, large enough for a whole table; when we ordered some as a side, the server should have warned us that we would have had enough without it. At least half went uneaten. The aioli on the side is unremarkable, and was missing altogether on my last visit. The steak frites is $22.00.
Duck 3-ways was unimpressive. The breast was properly cooked but lacked flavor; it sat in a watery ‘stew’ that was more like a broth with a few vegetables. In the middle of this mess were a couple of very tired and soggy raviolis that lacked any semblance of texture and were overpowered by the broth. The entire dish was served rather cold. A disappointment at $20.00
A trio of risotto always seems to be available. Recently it was scallops, tomatoes, and pancetta ($18.00). Though each risotto was cooked just right, for that price, the portions were rather small. The scallop version was a bit short on flavor. If this is all I had ordered, I would have left hungry and annoyed.
Short rib bourguignon was another disappointment. Though it was cooked properly, and the meat just about fell off the bones, there was just no special flavor, including that from the meat. This was a boring dish that had little to redeem it ($18.00). The pork shank was nicely crisped on the outside, but was overdone and rather dry on the inside. Accompanying it was a milk sauce that was very mild. The accompanying polenta was just fine, but they need to do something to bring this dish up a notch. It just didn’t have a whole lot of flavor ($20.00).
Finally we come to the lobster pot pie. Bring your visa card, it’s $35.00. For that you get a cart rolled to your table with a large, perfectly browned pot pie. The waiter cuts around the outside and removes the top with a great flourish. Inside is a piece of lobster about the size of your fist – if that. They move the top pastry to your (cold) plate, add the lobster, and top it with the vegetables, which have a good lobster flavor, and cream. Finally they add a shaving of Oregon truffles – not the most flavorful variety. I suppose I am used to the truffles I’ve eaten in Italy, which tend to be more pungent – it would have been nice if they had brought it up a notch. My biggest problem with the dish is by the time they have gone through their presentation, and put it on your cold plate, the food is cool. Frankly, I don’t think it is worth the price, but it has potential.
The pumpkin panne cotta was just lame, nearly flavorless, with a strange goopy texture and a soggy crust ($6.00). The best desert I’ve tried was their take on a molten chocolate cake, which was done just right, runny on the inside without being grainy, and not overly sweet, a deep bittersweet chocolate flavor. The only drawback is it was a very small portion ($7.00). A pear & frangipane tart was also good, with a poached pear in the center of the tart, a nice buttery, almond pastry crust which was pretty well developed. It was accompanied by a scoop of pear ice cream, which really didn’t taste much like pear. A red wine reduction was served on the side, but needs work – was rather thin and didn’t do a whole lot for the dish ($7.00). Overall, I’d say these are average Portland desserts, nothing special.
It seems that Olea is better at presentation than they are at turning out top-notch meals. Most of the dishes looked really nice, but many were disappointing once they got into your mouth. A common problem throughout the menu is that dishes come out too cool. It is almost as if they aren’t heating the plates properly, and this seriously detracts from the quality of the dishes. Then there is the final issue of timing from the kitchen and staff. I don’t want to wait 15 minutes before the server comes over the first time; I don’t want 20 minute gaps between courses. Sure, they occasionally send out something to make the wait more bearable, but I’d rather just get my damn food.
The wine list could use some work. It is not up to what you would expect to find in a nice restaurant. There are some good choices, at the expected markup, but nothing really fantastic. About six wines are available by the glass, but this selection needs help – none of them are particularly good. The full bar is a comfortable place to wait for a table, and the bartenders are excellent and attentive, going out of their way to make you feel comfortable.
Over my five visits, I’ve been here with friends that were very knowledgeable about food, and some that weren’t. Walking out, I always asked what they thought. Everyone rated their meals in the five to seven range. Definetly room for improvement, but not bad. It is possible to make good choices if you pick carefully. I think they have potential, but need to shorten the menu and concentrate on quality for the remaining items.
Average cost: $$$