As the global restaurant market becomes more generic, the quest to distinguish oneself from the pack grows more frantic. Sometimes this means a kitchen will prize silly innovation for its own sake, but at another it may lead to inspired invention. The vaguely Mediterranean kitchen Olea (a name that signifies the Latin root of olive) occasionally reaches for flavor combinations that speak to novelty more than to sound cooking. But often its daring dishes and thoughtful combinations work handsomely.
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.