José A. Velazco

1338 NW Hoyt

Leaning forward to pick up on what my date was saying, it occurred to me that all sensation inside Olea was muted—it took effort just to hear words, to feel the tablecloth, to taste our food. Fancy restaurant energy was everywhere, and yet halfway through our meal we were exhausted. I guess energy wasted is more tiring than just plain old energy spent.

Established last June, Olea resides in one of those faux-industrial Pearl District buildings, replete with warehouse-like dimensions and skylight framed in a blue-collar metal grid. '40s-looking vintage lampshades dangle from the ceiling while the sleek open kitchens have a distinctly modern look. A long ramp past dark wood paneling flashing back to the '70s. These disparate ambient elements don't clash as much as they bleed together into a murky pool of self-aware chic. Olea's menu has a similar vibe, an eclectic puzzle of Italian, Spanish, and French influences.

Our meal began with a chanterelle mushroom soup, a roasted beet salad with requisite goat cheese plus kumquats and fennel, and roasted ceci (garbanzo beans) under a roof of crispy frico (a Dutch cheese). The soup's subtly delicious chanterelles and tingly-soft garlic cloves were countered by a thick, tasteless buttery broth. The two and a half tiny beet slices in the nearly invisible salad were undercooked, and the frico and ceci medley was tasty in a bowl-of-gourmet-nuts kind of way.

Dinner brought further inconsistencies. The steak frites featured a lovingly cooked cube of strip loin alongside a garlicky shallot dipping sauce. Accompanying this exquisite morsel was... a giant tin bucket full of McDonald's-style French fries. I suspect the effect is meant to be a welcome surprise twist in Olea's otherwise gourmet fabric—an island of "normal" food delightful in its down-home audacity. But the pairing of greasy fries with rich delicacies tied our stomachs into knots. The three-part risotto entrée with seared scallops, however, was delightful in flavor, texture, and appearance.

As the prices rise on Olea's menu, things even out. The $35 lobster pot pie is as fun to eat as it sounds and features a decadent lobster stew with vegetables in a cream sauce. The spit-roasted kobe delmonico, also $35, is meat from Japanese cows whose flesh gets massaged until it's nearly quivering with tenderness.

Despite these highlights Olea smacks of a frantic need to stand out from the pack in both menu and atmosphere. Our waiter, though friendly, pointed out, unsolicited and in extraneous detail, the mouth-watering benefits of what felt like every dish on the menu. He told us certain dishes were a "great deal," as if selling us a car. The restaurant is trying hard, but trying for what? It's extravagant in appearance, yet seems to crave intimacy. It's too vast to be a cozy date destination, but its flailing stabs at quiet elegance don't make for a casual hangout spot either.

"It has no soul."

That's what my date had been saying when I had to lean forward to hear it. I laughed at her endearing hyperbole. I sighed and sat back, wiping my brow with the effort expended in that simple little chuckle. I felt suffocated with weariness. It occurred to me that if Olea was indeed soulless, perhaps it was trying to suck my soul.

We skipped dessert.