Mrs. H and I decided to try Ole for Valentine's Day. The kids were off to the in-laws, and for the first time since the third child came along, we had the night to ourselves, with no babysitter awaiting a ride home. So, really, it's Valentine's Day and we're kid free--we should have been easy to please. That we weren't pleased is the reason that the place gets only two instead of three stars.
The highlights: Papas Ole, which often go by Batatas Bravas at other tapas places, were different than most, and quite good. Rather than a straight garlic aioli, they were in what I would describe as an aioli bechamel. Not what I was expecting, but unusual in a good way, and fairly tasty. The empanadas make it onto both the highlights and the disappointments list. The chicken one was delighftul and perfectly cooked. The pork...below...The garlic shrimp (gambas al ajillo) were good not great, but better than many rubbery overcooked restaurant shrimp that I've tasted.
The lowlights: our waiter was not someone who should plan on a long career in food service. We ordered our first bottle of wine, and off the server went. 7 or 8 minutes (!) later, he appeared to announce that they did not have any more of the wine we ordered. we ordered an alternative, and off he went again. 4 or 5 minutes later, he appeared again to tell us that--desolee--they were out of that as well. He then proceeded to suggest one that was moderately more expensive than our other choices. As the Clancy brothers once sang, there's nothing so sad nor so lonesome nor drear, than to stand in the bar at the pub with no beer--and the same is true for wine. When the suggested wine finally appeared, I had to reposition myself while the waiter opened it, because I was fairly sure when he finally wrestled the cork free that he would manage to whack me in the face with the cork and opener. And after it was open, he tried to flip the cork and reinsert it in the neck, though I stopped him at least from this.
Now, I've never had multiple attempts to order wine fail before. The few times I've ever placed an order in a restaurant, if the wait staff has left my table with the order and then discovered they couldn't fulfill it, they have always returned with an alternative that falls into the "same or greater value" for the same price kind of category. It rarely happens, but they always return with a solution after the first failure that is designed to make me feel that they are more upset than I am. I've never felt like the menu was a bait-and-switch, but the thought crossed my mind tonight after two goose eggs. It's a truism that the second least expensive wine on the menu is the most popular, and I'm as budget conscious as the next person these days, so I'm frankly flabbergasted that the place was out of two different wines in that price range. (As an aside, one of the things I loved about Tango in Arlington center is how very many wines they had on their list around that "second cheapest" price point.)
The bread was three small slices not replenished, with a small amount of (yummy) garlic oil. The pork empanada was seriously overcooked. And, most shockingly of all, the tortilla Espanola was inedible. That's a bit like a barbecue place with lousy pulled pork, or a Thai place with rubbery fish. Tortilla Espanola is close to the r'aison d'etat of a tapas place. When the waiter inquired about it, I told him it was "a disappointment." It had too little egg, and was dry to the point that it crumbled to oblivion when I attempted to slice off part to share with my wife. (It also had red peppers in it, though they weren't mentioned on the menu. I have problems eating large quantities of red peppers, and am very careful to minimize how much of them I eat. I dislike it when a description of a meal omits a major ingredient, esp. one that is a known allergen.) If the tortilla had been otherwise acceptable, I would have eaten a small amount and been okay with it. Anyway when I expressed my disappointment, the waiter, by way of apology apparently, explained that it was left over from the night before, and not fresh, and so that probably explains its texture and general inedibility.
I will pause a moment, to allow you to consider that last sentence. I'm still having trouble processing it, three hours later.
The general ambience of the place was decent, though it was a little jarring to realize that the singer was covering "C'mon Baby Light My Fire" in Spanish at one point, and early on the taped music at the bar was competing with the live music. We had no trouble carrying on a conversation at our table, though, even with the music, and that's unusual. Lighting was restaurant dim, but adequate, and the decor was somewhat more restrained than many tapas restaurants.
Most of the deficiencies could easily be overcome with some consistency in the kitchen. The best was quite good, and most was acceptable. But the inept service and lack of attempts to make up for the deficiencies has made me reluctant to return, unless I become aware of some major changes. A lot of training or a greater selectivity for the wait staff are a must.
I don't post a lot of reviews, but I think if you read the ones I have posted, you will see that I go to most restaurants willing to be pleased. I am looking for the good and willing to overlook the minor snags that accompany most human activity. The fact that I have detailed them here will, I hope, speak a lot. I know the board is mixed on Dali, and in some ways even more so on Toro, but I would certainly return to either of those over Ole any time soon. Fortunately, Mrs. H is a trooper, and the company more than made up for the limitations of the restaurant. As a plus, I can also mention that Ole is a short walk from Caffe Paradiso, where we had good coffee and great desserts!
76 Merrimack St, Lowell, MA 01852
Great review: you should post more often!
Was the place jammed for Valentine's Day? I always wonder if the expected crowds on this night ever contribute to folks' disappointments.
That wine service story is pretty comical/appalling. Reminds me of the time I had a server bend over and squeeze a bottle between her thighs to get better leverage with the corkscrew: we're still talking about that one 15 years later. I guess I always drink beer or the pretty-good cocktails when I dine at Ole, so I've never run into this. Basic lack of training on display there, for which there is no excuse.
I guess I wouldn't be tempted to order tortilla Espanola at a Mexican place, but the "leftover from last night" story is just jaw-dropping!
On the whole, I like Ole, especially if I can sit in the back room, which seems quieter and prettier at dinner (all those candles). I think the kitchen does better when they get a little more creative. I have no inside information, but have always suspected that the brother/brother split that led to the creation of Zocalo is behind this (Zocalo seems much more traditional in its approach to Mexican).
D'oh! I totally did not notice his locator reference: I thought he was talking about Ole Grill in Inman Square!
I have not been to the place in Lowell. The tortilla Espanola reference should have been a hint (I was surprised to see this, as I'd never noticed it on the Ole Grill menu, but I haven't been back in some months, figured it was maybe some oddball recent addition). The Lowell one is called Ole Restaurant and Tapas Bar, and it's a Spanish place. (Rereading it, I should have wondered at the Caffe Paradiso reference, too.)
Great review! This was a place on mommy's list too. She will be disappointed to hear it. I have read posts of yours and laud you for really putting things in perspective in your review.
I also commend you Mr. H for braving the restaurant world on Valentine's Day. Stories like this, and memories of my college years working in the mines, serve as great reminders of why we don't dine out on such a night. STILL, service horror and day old tortilla are crimes that should not go unpunished. But, something tells me we've all seen worse.
I caught the bit about this being a Lowell restaurant but somehow glossed over the fact that it was Valentine's Day. I've learned the hard way never to go to a restaurant on Valentine's Day. Last time I did so I got a mediocre, overpriced meal at a place that has never let me down before (La Morra). Never again.
Granted there's no excuse for serving yesterday's leftovers, but I'd suggest you give the place a second chance on a normal night before dismissing it entirely.
Alas, the kids were to go to the grandparents so we could go out for a Saturday night meal. But the oldest got the flu, and couldn't go, we we had to put it off a night. I too would have preferred any other night. But, at the same time, the place was hardly crowded, and the staff was not in the least harried.
As for Tortilla Espanola, I make a very good rendition of it, so I know it's not difficult to do well, and I actually prefer it the next day (or at least after quite a few hours in the chill chest. The fact that it was not made that day therefore isn't the huge problem for me, but rather the waiter's thinking that telling me something was old, and therefore stale, and that this is somehow an excuse for putting crappy food in front of me: well, that's just plain dumb.
And finally, sorry to all for the confusion. This is the first post I've made since the board was updated, and I didn't know until after posting that the restaurant location info would be buried at the bottom, rather than in the subject line or at the top. I'll be clearer in future posts.