Tepid Tapas 

Spend Less to Get More at Bar Lolo

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BY ALL APPEARANCES, Bar Lolo should be packed. It's a handsome, pop-modern, high-ceilinged space, well-designed and comfortable to relax in. The wood gleams, the bottles smile down from the spacious and well-kept bar, and an entire wall of windows allows for the kind of people-watching that makes dining on Alberta the private episode of Project Runway that it is. But it's not packed, even though the menu is deep with intriguing Spanish-Basque tapas, the service is professional, and the drinks look sexy in the natural light.

The smallest of Bar Lolo's plates are well-executed, cheap drinking snacks. A double-shot of heirloom tomato gazpacho ($2) is a fine puree of fresh fruit, with a crunchy crouton and a little well of rich olive oil floated in. The banderillas ($4) are five bite-sized skewers of green olive, Basque piparra peppers, and mild white anchovy filets, vinegary, salty, and cool. The stand-out of all visits was the simple dish of potato chips with sea salt ($4), garnished with a generous dash of fried sage, rosemary, and parsley. The chips, fried to order, were ideally crisp, and the frying dried the sap-like qualities of these sturdy herbs, making them aromatic, shattering, and light. If out for drinks at Bar Lolo, one order of these per person makes sense, as they're clearly a house specialty. Patatas bravas ($4), fried waxy potatoes with an aggressively beaten, slightly thick garlic aioli and sweet red pepper sauce are just alright... they seem to want to come out of the kitchen in the fanfare of a screaming-hot cazuela, but they arrive quietly, just some potatoes, here you go.

During every visit the romaine and manchego salad ($4) was proudly suggested by our waitress, so finally we caved and gave it a try. The ribbons of lettuce were dumped artlessly on a plate, and because they weren't dried before being tossed with the slightly creamy dressing, it didn't adhere, resulting in just another airport-quality mishmash that went silently back to the kitchen at the end of the meal. The grilled zucchini with romesco and chopped, toasted almonds ($4) had a surprising amount of flavor, though, and for the price was a whole lot of what I suspect was a completely vegan dish. The char marks were thorough and the rich aroma of a well-seasoned grill came through.

The food quality at bar Lolo is high at the low price points but, as the complexity and size of the dishes grows, so does the chance of disappointment.

Croquettes of Serrano ham and manchego ($6), served as a pair with a smoked paprika aioli, are excellent. Greaseless, with a hard crust and tender interior, they are another perfect bar snack.

The Albondigas ($6), though—five meatballs in a spicy, thin tomato sauce—were a curiosity. Meatballs are typically extended with bread, which not only saves the kitchen meat but also makes them tender; there is nothing disingenuous about it. These had no filler, which created the unfortunate situation of generosity resulting in a tough product. The flavor was straightforward and simple, but the dish as a whole lacked the punch an engaging texture or personality-suggesting herb would have provided.

Empanadas of citrus-braised pork ($8), two to an order, come with tart pickled onion and a creamy, fresh guacamole. The flaky pastry crust is light, not overly doughy or bready, and further proof that the chef is excellent with deep-fried items. However, the mild filling of pork is surprisingly smooth, like a rillette, and for the care that clearly goes into such a preparation, a less-uniform meat with more texture might have been more interesting, given the tenderness of the rest of the dish. That said, it was delicious and well made. But an entire meal of fried items is not a wise one, so the pork spare ribs in sherry-lemon glaze ($8) and fideo pasta ($10) were next.

The four meaty ribs had the elusive visual wow factor, with the dark, lacquered meat stacked generously in the cazuela, but the glaze was oily and unrewarding to lick off the fingers, and an impressive pile of lemon zest needed to be swept off so that anything else could be tasted. The meat itself could have used another half-hour of cooking, as it clung a bit too tightly to the bone. At the fideo with squash and manchego, though, I slumped over in the resignation that there would be more misses than hits on the menu. Loose and wet from the squash, oily from the cheese, and lacking a simple reason to be, it was a dud from a bad dinner at a friend's house. It was not restaurant-quality food.

Bar Lolo would be a beautiful place for a meal if a critical eye were turned on its more ambitious offerings, and its Alberta neighbors would finally have a late night option for sophisticated dining. For now, it is best suited to a happy hour-type outing.

Tuesday-Thursday 5-11pm, Friday-Saturday 5 pm-midnight or later, Sunday 4-9 pm. HH Tuesday-Friday 5-6:30 pm, 10 pm-close. Full bar, comfortable outdoor seating.

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