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First Bite: OLÁ, New Portuguese In Jing'an

Apr 13, 2015 | 15:57 Mon
Had some good times last Friday night at this place Ola that opened a couple of weeks ago on Wuding Lu in Jing’an. It's the new project by Paulo Luis, a Portuguese fellow who worked at Judy's for many years before this. There's room for about 50 diners, with exposed brick, low lighting, low music and a menu that places it about midway between a bar and a restaurant.

The menu starts with three pages of drinks including 14 bottled beers and four on tap, including Acme. Not many places have that on tap. Prices are decent, with pints from 35-50rmb and 10rmb off daily from 3-8pm (they also run happy-hour discounts on coffee and soft drinks). Spirits are all around 45rmb or 550rmb for bottles. Pretty standard prices for this postcode. The wine list features about 15 bottles, mainly Portuguese and Spanish.

The food menu, however, diverges wildly from the Iberian Peninsula with dishes like Hungarian goulash (40rmb), chili fries (45rmb), burgers (all around 60rmb), schnitzel (78rmb), a Philly steak sandwich (88rmb) and a whole Tex-Mex section alongside more traditional Portuguese dishes such as semilha frita (38rmb), bitoque de porco (88rmb) and arroz de Marisco (198rmb for two). Usually that sort of breadth on a menu spells mediocrity – how can any smallish kitchen stock that many fresh ingredients, let alone possess the manpower and know-how to excel at so many national cuisines? I asked our Portuguese waitress, who explained with a huge smile that she and the other owners had just selected all their favorite foods, everything they knew how to make, and put all of it on the menu.

Nevertheless, we stuck pretty close to the restaurant’s origins and went for mussels in white wine sauce (75rmb), beef carpaccio (75rmb), some grilled codfish (128rmb) with clams and mashed garlic and the caldeirada fish stew (98rmb). The waitress also persuaded us on a side of semilha frita, hand-cut French fries made with oregano and garlic that were super greasy and delicious.

Everything was a hit, except for the mussels, which were salty and a bit dry. That’s odd, because moules mariniere is a pretty easy dish to make. Even I’ve done it -- you just keep adding cream and white wine until it tastes, well, of delicious creamy white wine. Don’t know what happened there, but the rest of what came out was good, like a huge portion of beef carpaccio served on icy-cold lettuce with just enough dressing to enhance without smothering the flavor. My cod was perfectly cooked, rare but slightly chewy, which is how I like it. The caldeirada was excellent, stuffed with fresh seafood and large chunks of boneless white fish.

But what really impressed me about Ola was the service. The people running the show were the ideal mix of friendly and enthusiastic. They came over, greeted us warmly, chatted, swapped some compliments, gave us some background on the place and came back regularly to see how things were working out. It looked like they were having fun, which made it almost impossible for us not to have fun, too. Ah, good service. So easy to get right yet so often screwed up. I can’t enjoy food, no matter how well it’s prepared, if it’s served to me with indifference or rudeness. That place Pirata on Xinle Lu… I love their food but the last time I went they screwed up my reservation, said it was my fault, then seated me at a table and ignored me and my girl until we got up and left. Cheers for screwing up our Valentine’s Day, Pirata.

Ola, on the other hand, is friendly and welcoming. The place was pretty full on a Friday, mostly with Chinese families plus a couple of dates. At one point a little girl came in holding a six-week-old French bulldog, which ran around the restaurant being the cutest little fucking thing in the world ever. Everyone got involved. That was good.

At 10pm they turn down the lights and allow smoking inside, and things get a bit more like the other bars on this street. We had another glass of wine and got out of there for 844rmb, but that included a good bottle of Rioja (360rmb) plus a couple of glasses of house and some coffee. All in all, a fun place where friendly service overcame the odd hiccup on the menu.

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