The idea is simple: Take a small-plates, European style of dining to Elk Grove and keep things straightforward when it comes to the cooking.
Lola’s Lounge in Elk Grove has a chef with an impressive pedigree, so you might think the new restaurant would go for edgy ingredients and unusual presentations. Owners, however, aren’t sure the area, with ample choices in chain restaurants, is ready to support a more challenging concept. Thus the decision to keep things straightforward.
The focus is on classic Spanish tapas, which encourage nibbling from several plates over the course of a meal. You get bursts of flavor, plenty of textures, and perhaps a few bursts of inspiration.
Lola’s Lounge, named for the daughter of owners Tito Class and Annette Serrano, shows Elk Grove is ready for tapas from Spain, Puerto Rico and parts of South America, because the place is often bustling. The feedback on the food, we hear, has been largely positive.
For diners outside Elk Grove, the question is whether the classic dishes are executed with enough aplomb and creativity to hop on the freeway and drive 15, 25 miles or more.
Lola’s Lounge has brought plenty of new energy and style to Old Town Elk Grove. The restaurant, in a building that once housed Elk Grove Brewing, has a wonderful blend of urban/rustic architectural elements, with interior brick walls and high ceilings decked out with ornate hammered tin. There’s a large, well-stocked bar on one side of the room and an attractive dining area on the other.
Charlie Harrison, the chef at Lola’s, had a virtuoso performance at the short-lived Tre, a restaurant and nightclub concept on Howe Avenue that seemed to have plenty of potential but never quite clicked. He was also chef at the former David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods and at Cafe Vinoteca and, for a time, a chef in Chicago at Michelin-starred Moto and its sister restaurant, iNG.
During our first visit to Lola’s, we went strictly for tapas, ordering an array of dishes that would show how much command the kitchen had in the early months of this restaurant. The results were mixed. Some of these small plates were delicious, but some were sub-par, especially the black bean soup, which was so simmered and dried up that it resembled a side dish of refried beans. It was an obvious disaster that never should have been sent out of the kitchen. Two spoonfuls later, this “soup” was on it way back.
The sliders – essentially mini burgers – were also a disappointment. While they were tender and juicy patties nicely cooked, little else distinguished them as something special, or even mildly interesting. A missed opportunity at a place that could use a little pizazz.
The gambas y papa, on the other hand, was a very good version of this classic Spanish tapa, featuring gulf shrimp and purple potatoes, with the appealing twist of chorizo to give the dish a burst of elegant spiciness. The empanadas with shredded beef, egg and Mandarin slaw were also nicely presented and delicious.
Subsequent visits provided opportunities to sample the rest of the menu.
The Catalan-style flatbread pizzas were very good, the crust much lighter than, say, Neapolitan pizza. Our flatbread pie had cubes of tender roasted squash, ricotta cheese, pine nuts toasted and scattered about, and sage. These ingredients working in unison gave each mouthful a lively note of sweetness, creaminess and a lively earthy finish on the palate. A really good pie. It could only be better with a dough that had more flavor and character. This crust was bland and too airy to be considered top-notch.
The patatas de truffa, described on the menu as “crispy mixed potatoes” with Manchego cheese and truffle, were decent but nothing special. And the small potatoes, while nicely seasoned, were not crispy by any stretch of the imagination.
On the large entrees, where most of the dishes range from $12 to $17, the cooking sometimes veered off course. The ropa vieja, featuring slow-cooked shredded beef, was a sad-looking, off-tasting dish that lacked any signs of finesse. The meat was far too salty and the melding of flavors was too jarringly bitter to be enjoyable. The so-called achiote rice and black beans were far too bland. This dish at its best has an intensity of flavors but with the kind of balance that allows the beef and sauce to coat the mouth and provide a robust pinging of deep, heartwarming flavors.
The paella, a classic seafood-and-rice dish simmered in a large pan, was done relatively well at Lola’s. With shrimp and mussels, along with chunks of chicken and chorizo, there was plenty going on amid the saffron-seasoned rice. But our paella lacked that crustiness here and there that gives the rice an added dimension of taste and texture.
The $17 plate of tuna was also less than stellar. Seared rare and served with quinoa and greens, along with an ancho chili purée, the tuna was noticeably too salty and the fish itself seemed less than lively, as if it had been sitting too long and then quickly reheated in the pan. The quinoa and greens were a large component of the plate and were distinctive mostly for their baffling blandness. And that black bean soup that looked more like a chunk of coal? We ordered it again, and this time the broth was spot on – but it was so under-seasoned we wanted to send it back a second time.
Throughout our visits, our experiences mirrored this roller coaster of ho-hum, good and not-so-good. Straightforward presentations, an array of nice ingredients, not a lot of exotic stuff to transport us to far-off places with flavor combinations.
So how does it compare to the best tapas places around, which attract folks from beyond their neighborhoods? Aïoli Bodega Española in Sacramento’s midtown serves a much larger assortment of classic tapas, has a far superior wine list and has service that offers a blend of panache and professionalism to elevate the experience. Source Global Tapas in Granite Bay has such creative and well-executed dishes, including the delicious boquerones (marinated white anchovies and giant beans with quail eggs) and the seared diver scallops with wasabi. Likewise, Tucos in Davis has plenty of personality on its menu, especially the wild boar tamales with mole.
But an eye-popping array of food is simply not on the menu at Lola’s. And the service is solid but sometimes a tad inexperienced, not close to the polished service at Source or the personality-driven service at Aïoli. That’s forgivable, given that it’s a new restaurant.
Mostly, what’s holding Lola’s back is a lack of food that distinguishes it from a run-of-the-mill tapas place anywhere. There’s not enough pizazz in the modified classics; not enough bursts of flavor in the straightforward dishes. Ho-hum comes to mind, with only occasional moments of true inspiration.
While the room has plenty of style, and the vibe is often lively at the bar, Lola’s for now is an exciting new spot for Elk Grove with plenty of potential. But as a destination for diners from elsewhere, it is still too ordinary – and the competition is too good elsewhere – to be worth the drive.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.
9085 Elk Grove Blvd.
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar, including a nice selection of classic and specialty cocktails; compact beer and wine lists cover the bases
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Ambiance: Appealing style in a large room with high ceilings and plenty of architectural elements
There’s plenty of charm and style in this new tapas bar in Old Town Elk Grove. While the cooking is largely solid, the menu is very straightforward and does not do enough to warrant a drive for anyone beyond the Elk Grove area. When the menu becomes more dynamic and the cooking more consistent, that could change.
Hits and misses even out to ho-hum. The paella is a solid bet. The gambas y papa is a tasty version of this shrimp-and-potatoes standard. The flatbread pizzas are also solid. But some of the entrees just aren’t cutting it.
Friendly and attentive, the service ranges from good to green, which is as expected for a restaurant still finding its footing.
The tapas are mostly in the $9 to $13 range, which is not cheap, considering that you order two to four to put together a meal.