| Menage à Tomato: Oleas server Adam Smith Shows off an heirloom three ways. |
IMAGE: AMY OULETTE
Olea's initial boldness is in simply being there, for it occupies a Pearl District space historically doomed to short-lived turnovers-from Bima to Vivid. I suspect Olea will fare better. Like its predecessors, it has the advantage of a single large, lofty room with gorgeous natural lighting, thanks to an upper story with a kind of skylight wall. A suave, airy makeover by owner, and Eugene native, Richard Glass has taken advantage of these elements, with creamy lemon and taupe slatted-wood walls and a commodious bar area that's as much cafe as it is late-evening glamour spot.
Several rubrics of chef Scott Shampine's (a kitchen vet of both Hurley's and the French Laundry) menu are a bit curious. The document is separated into categories like snacks, flat breads, shellfish and fin fish. But in practice these food groups offer intriguing options. Begin your meal with a cluster of small plates from "shellfish": mussels stuffed with chorizo ($12) bathed in a saffron-infused broth or a Moroccan treatment of cockles ($8)-a delicate clam in a heart-shaped shell-slow-cooked in a pot au feu, enriched with a fiery chili-based sauce.
Several vegetable dishes are also pleasant, especially a long plate of late-summer heirloom tomatoes served three ways ($8): sliced and paired with frisée, broiled on a little mound of puff pastry and turned into a crystalline savory granita. A small order of pasta is a must. The best is the ear-shaped orecchiette ($10) with a meltingly tender ragù of ox tail enhanced with a jolt of espresso-an impressive wake-up call.
Sometimes, though, attention needs to be paid to the cooking instead of the dazzle. Disks of monkfish ($20) arrived overdone. Generous table-side shavings of truffle-however fragrant-could not rescue it. On the other hand, a beautifully cooked duck breast ($18) did not profit from an over-sweet dose of honey and the cloying taste of grilled melon. But a luscious pork chop ($18) on a bed of ultra-soft golden polenta is a delight, and the best single item, "braised bacon" ($18) is in fact a slab of pork belly braised with green apples and Brussels sprouts.
Desserts are only decent. A frozen white nougatine ($7) served in a fragile pastry cup alongside a pool of puckeringly sour cherries and candied violets can only be described as a gallimaufry of textures and flavors.
Olea strives for difference, and more often than not, its subtle refinements are both ambitious and successful. With some fine-tuning it should become a destination for dinner and dazzle.
Olea, 1338 NW Hoyt St., 274-0800. 5 pm-midnight daily. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.