Giorgio Kawas must love Portland a lot. So much so that the Italian-born restaurateur, whose eponymous Pearl District bistro has charmed diners for nearly a decade, wooed a pair of chefs (who once worked at Napa's Auberge du Soleil and the French Laundry, respectively) from the Giorgio's kitchen to cook at his new place on Northeast Alberta Street. All so the rest of us may enjoy delicious tapas. He calls his love letter Lolo (2940 NE Alberta St., 288-3400) , which means "silly young thing," and it's a bright offering in a tired genre—here "tapas restaurant" denotes nothing of a place but the size of its plates.
Start with the potato chips ($4), spangled with fried herbs and sea salt. Kawas could take early retirement if these were available by the bag. And in delivering octopus ($12) so tender patrons can actually chew it, Lolo has performed a miracle in this town. Served with a confit of piquillo peppers, it makes good of two of the most revered edibles of Northern Spain. More tentacles: Steamed calamari sounds naked, but the tender squid ($15) paired with sautéed discs of Japanese eggplant are both firm to the touch yet dissolve in your mouth.
Why tapas? "The landscapes are very similar," says Kawas of Oregon and Spain's Basque Country, where he lived for three years. "It seemed a perfect fit." Indeed. Spanish food is nothing without hog, and here it's rolled into tiny globes called albondigas ($8), sitting pretty alongside a trio of ricotta gnocchi atop a sop-worthy pool of tart, addictive almond sauce.
Lolo can also play it rustic. A cazuela ($9), a traditional Spanish clay pot, bakes salt cod, potatoes and manchego under a skin of crispy breadcrumbs, which exits the oven as pure comfort. A quintet of plump spot prawns ($11) atop an awesome paprika-heavy, chorizo-laden runner-bean stew adds class to country Spanish, and the rich braised oxtail ($18) with carrots and fingerlings is served in a metal pot that releases a cloud of steam when opened. It's like a tiny meat sauna that cleanses your soul.
But every new restaurant, even this light-drenched storefront space, has its culinary mishaps. Served cold, the Spanish tortilla is lousy. Since Spaniards have the most shameless microwave-loving restaurant culture on earth, why not nuke the tortillas, for authenticity's sake? Also, the excellent churros ($7) are served with a lackluster drinking chocolate. But here's a short-term solution: Take an order of the fried dough to go and head downtown to Cacao. In the meantime, try the marvelous flan ($7).
Lolo can get spendy, but with the Alberta Street Oyster Bar gone, where else are you going to splurge on Alberta Street?