Finally got to Olea tonight. Is it the economy turning around or all the Californians moving up to the Pearl that are bringing in big dollar restaurants to Portland? (We were surrounded by youngish, new money Californians.) I'm not going to complain if they're all like Olea. Very nice room. Open and large and relatively packed, but not noisy. Padded gold or tan benches push up against the outer walls, green wainscoating above that, interrupted by large rectangular mirrors. Simple, but elegant and moderately comfortable chairs are used throughout. Tan, round lighting hangs from the tall ceiling. There's a set of seats around the wood oven and there's a bar up front. (I wish there were seats along the front windows instead.) There's a balcony area, too, with several tables, and a back room for private dining that's enclosed in glass.
The menu is two pages with sections for snacks/primi, vegetables, flat breads/pizza, charcuterie, pasta/polenta/risotto, shellfish/fin fish, meat/poultry, and desserts. Each section has several choices, with the meat/poultry having a whopping nine. (And if you take all the individual cheese and salumi selections into account, there are probably 20 or 30 selections in charcuterie.) That's a lot of options on the menu. Most items are smallish portions, with some items able to be ordered in two sizes, though I'd say the larger size is still comparable to what you get at places like Tabla or Hurley's. The dishes seem to be less simple than they sound, but even with the simple descriptions there were plenty of tough choices.
This is what we had:
* Grilled Dates ($5): 3 parma ham wrapped dates on a skewer of rosemary sitting in a pool of vanilla-black pepper oil. The sweetness came from the ham and the dates, while the sauce added a savory and rich note, a lot of fragrance, and a little bite. Almost chocolatey, really, reminding me why vanilla and chocolate work together so well. A fantastic dish. My wife's favorite. Simple, but creative and craveable.
* Salad Lyonnaise ($9): Frisee in a creamy, slightly tangy sherry vinaigrette with mustard seeds and plentiful crispy diced lardon. Crumbled hard-cooked egg yolk throughout and a perfectly poached egg on top. The lardon were quite smokey, which I really enjoyed. About half were more chewy than crispy, but the whole balance of flavors was perfect with just enough brightness to cut through the richness. The texture of the egg yolk added an interesting and alternative mouthfeel. Overall, an excellent salad, if a bit small for the price.
* House Pate ($6): Half a deviled egg, two generous slabs of pate, diced pickled onions, quenelle of tangy whole grain mustard, and several tiny cornichons -- plus slivers of chives over all -- served on a long wood cheese board. Probably our least favorite dish, but not because it was bad, only because it was the most boring and typical. It was also probably the most food for the money. The pate itself was meaty and rich, studded with pistachios and sprinkled with black pepper. I'd say it was a bit bland and could have used a little salt. Though perhaps they were allowing for all the zesty accompaniments to excite the palate. The deviled egg was also bland, primarily tasting of egg whites. I also wouldn't have minded something besides vinegary accompaniments, like something sweet and sour. But everything was traditional, just a little too much so compared to other dishes.
* Cinderella Pumpkin Agnolotti ($12): Bowl of perhaps 8 or 10 ravioli filled with a creamy mixture of pumpkin and mascarpone. Wonderful sweet and balanced sauce of diced pumpkin, caramelized pearl onions or shallots, orange syrup, crumbled amaretti cookie, and sage brown-butter. It seemed so much simpler than it sounds. Great balance of flavors once again, with a base of sweetness that works well for my palate. My wife and I both thought this was terrific and even though my wife kept insisting that I eat more (saving myself for pork belly) she finished all the ravioli off and both of us found ourselves dipping our fingers into the leftover sauce and scooping up bits of this and that.
* Lobster Pot Pie ($35): Served tableside. The waiter brought out a casserole dish covered in puff pastry and cut it away revealing the lobster stew inside. He flipped over the pastry top upside down onto a plate and moved the lobster pieces into the middle of the puff pastry, stacking them. Then he removed the rest of the stew and placed it around the lobster covering everything in the sauce. The smell washed over us. He finished the dish with freshly shaven Oregon black truffles. At $35, four ounces or so of lobster was probably a bit light. But it tasted quite good and the lobster was perfectly cooked, tender and sweet. The sauce was permeated with the flavor of the lobster. Pieces of carrots, potatoes, greens, wild mushrooms, and zucchini. The zucchini were cut so that they were little discs with the sides and bottom showing the flesh, while the top showed the green skin. Nice little detail. The truffle wasn't fragrant or flavorful enough. Perhaps it wasn't fully ripe, perhaps Beard was wrong about Oregon truffles. I think a drizzle of truffle oil could have made up for this. Very tasty overall, just a little disappointing with the truffles. (I should note that my wife thought the truffleness was plenty, but she's not a truffle-lover like me. I think the truffle should have challenged the lobster for dominance.)
* Braised Bacon ($18): My favorite dish of the night. A singular cube of in-house smoked pork belly sat atop halved and slightly-charred brussel sprouts. Around the sprouts were caramelized shallots, and green apples presented as the zucchini in the lobster dish. Finally, around those were tart little currants. All this rested in a lovely sweet and meaty reduction. The hunk of bacon itself was quite smokey, but without an off after-taste. The skin was crisped and the inside delectable. The pork was topped with julienned green apples and some microgreens. The best thing about the dish, though, was the balance of flavors that I always look for. A meaty sweetness came from both the pork and the sauce. But also a smokiness and richness from the pork. A bit of tangy sweetness came from the currants and sauce. Tartness from the apple. An earthy sweetness from the shallots. But then, also some bitterness from the brussel sprouts. Everything tasted great alone and even better together.
* Pear and Frangipane Tart ($7): Three dishes lay across another wood, rectangular cheeseboard. Poached pear sliced lengthwise partially through set in the center of a tart dish, a crumbly, buttery, almond-flavored pastry surrounding the fruit. The outside of the pastry was crisp yet delicate. The poached pear came across almost savory, keeping the dish from being cloying with the additional sweetness of the pastry. A red wine syrup was in a miniature pitcher and a scoop of pear ice cream in an soft-boiled egg cup. The red wine syrup needed to be reduced more. Its consistency was too thin and its flavor not intense enough. It did little for the tart, but better for the ice cream (although half the ice cream had to be eaten before it could be added because of the dish it was served in). The ice cream tasted more of cream than of pear. Too subtle really, though by then my palate had been bombarded by earlier dishes. A very fairly priced dish at $7, btw. It wasn't a small course at all. Not a great dessert, but a very respectable one. Perhaps even above average for Portland's high end.
A really good meal overall. A couple of fantastic dishes and not a loser in the bunch. We did go early, around 6:00 (and got a parking ticket at 6:25 -- wtf???) and it wasn't busy yet. By the time we left it was packed full. Service was attentive and informed, my water glass never got more than half empty and our plates were cleared efficiently, our napkins re-folded during bathroom breaks, and silverware always replaced. We were even asked if we'd prefer our water with or without ice (a pet peeve of a friend is ice in his water). The waiter even gave honest and useful recommendations.
I think the menu is a bit large and a bit expensive, but they have to pay for that huge, attractive room and I'm sure a whopping lease. And they are trying to earn it with interesting combinations and ingredients and food that's worthy of a tasting menu (why, oh, why do they not have one?) Several of the dishes seem to feed my palate's desire for sweet and meaty flavors, so perhaps it fits me better than some. Is it the best new restaurant of 2005? Hell if I know. I don't get around as much as I'd like and it's only one visit. But I don't think it's a ridiculous claim.