Much as I try, I can't seem to find a common thread between Volvos and haute cuisine. Volvos are austerely functional vehicles, hauling child protective seats with the resolve of a D-6 dozer. They're the automotive equivalent of granola with a side of stewed prunes, which, along with boutique lefty causes, is what fuels most Volvo drivers anyway.
But a lot has changed with Volvo over the past couple of years. Gone are commuter tanks such as the 240 sedan; Volvos have shed their industrial-washtub design and adopted a sleek look. Hell, the C70 coupe is downright sexy, with sloping curves, a trunk that gags on Pampers value packs from Sam's, and a bumper that would make fashion criminals out of anyone who tried to slap it with a "Save the Spotted Newt" sticker.
Van Roberts, owner of Lola The Restaurant, has a day job operating Point West Volvo in Irving. So it's relevant to ask: Is there anything about selling Volvos that translates into haute cuisine? "No, not a bit," Roberts says. Still, there may exist a common thread. The C70 comes in a host of un-Volvo-like metallic colors, including Saffron, Cassis, and Mustard -- stains you'll find on the jacket of any self-respecting New American chef.
Yet Roberts insists his plunge into the restaurant business had nothing to do with Volvos. Rather, it was born from a need to nurture his creative side -- which kind of sounds like a Volvo bumper sticker. He likes to paint, for instance. "This is one way for me to flesh that out a bit," he says of Lola.
So when the Barclays space became available after Nick Barclay and his wife decided to sell out and pursue a dream -- owning and operating a boutique hotel in England -- Roberts, a Barclays regular, jumped at the opportunity. He struck a deal with Nick; retained most of Barclays staff, including sous chef Chris Peters; and brought Jamie Samford of Angeluna in Fort Worth on board as both chef and co-owner of the tiny 70-seat restaurant parked in an old house among the galleries on Fairmount Street. For Roberts, the Barclays opportunity prompted a "now or never" life crescendo. "If you want to do something, you gotta try it," he says. "There's no guarantees. If I waited another five years, I might not even be around."
Which doesn't explain why he called the place Lola. Roberts says he was looking for something catchy and simple. "I notice a lot of the new restaurants in New York and Los Angeles and stuff were going with simple, short names. And I wanted a woman's name, and I tried to find something that had a little bit of a jazziness to it." He also admits he likes the Kinks song, though he says a lot of his older clientele associate the name with a line from a much older tune that goes, "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."
Or maybe whatever Van wants, Van gets. Roberts says that in addition to brushing on canvas, he also fiddles around in the kitchen. In fact, every dessert on Lola's menu -- from the Grand Marnier cheesecake with Chantilly cream to the raisin bread pudding with cinnamon-stick ice cream -- is a Van Roberts creation. And the roasted fresh pineapple with rum sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream shows he cooks with the verve of a C70. Roberts says he got the idea from a roasted pineapple dish he sampled in Hawaii, the specifics of which he admits are rather fuzzy. But whatever the inspiration, his version is rich, clean, and balanced. Roasting the pineapple pulls the fruit's sugar to the forefront, helping it mesh with the rum sauce, while the fruit's tartness adds contrast.
Another dish to which Roberts lays claim is the orange-caramelized salmon with sweet potato cakes. The fish is marinated in a mixture of star anise, brown sugar, rice-wine vinegar, soy, orange juice, and red pepper flakes before it's rolled in panko breadcrumbs and more brown sugar and broiled. The marinade is then reduced to a syrup and splashed on the fish. The resultant pink flesh is gently rich, almost creamy -- in a decadent way. Deep-fried sweet potato cakes, patties of potato coated with bread crumbs and flour and deep-fried, breathe with the same clean, balanced flavors.
The rest of the menu is left to Samford and sous chef Peters. Samford says he leans toward simple cleanliness and balance in his food, opting out of complicated formulations and layerings in favor of highlighting just a handful of flavors. This is evident in the visuals on the plate, which are simple and unfussy, often stark.
Sautéed foie gras with sun-dried cherry relish is a simple, generous lobe of liver resting on a crouton. Specks of dried cherry in a puddle of port demi-glace ring the delicate heap. Though slightly mushy, the liver is silky and brimming with clean, rich flavors. But what really perks this dish are those flecks of shriveled cherry, which are bursting with little pops of concentrated tang.
There is at least one dish here that treads a path of visual twists. Mary's baby-spinach salad resembles a head dress, or maybe a bouffant hairdo with a headband. A wide band of prosciutto cordons a delicate pile of fresh spinach leaves, which are laced with juicy sections of grapefruit and avocado in a light housemade French dressing.
Soups show the same vibrant simplicity. Wild mushroom soup with parsley crème fraîche, a smooth pulverization of shiitake, porcini, and cremino fungi, is light, earthy, and streaked with lust from a little sriracha (chili-and-garlic sauce) and maple syrup.
Tomato soup -- pureed romas in vegetable stock made richer with just a touch of cream -- is a simple puddle of torrid raciness with searingly fresh flavors, the kind of pottage that could easily tease you into bowl-licking vulgarity.
Lola has loosely borrowed Barclays fixed menu pricing structure: $32 for two courses; $40 for three; and $47 for four. An asterisk on certain items -- the foie gras and poached lobster -- denotes a $3 surcharge. So the menu seems pricey at first blush, though not when you consider that in some restaurants the $32 two-course price is what might be charged for a single entrée.
But it's the wine list where prices come off as extremely reasonable. Mostly scattered with bottlings from California, the list features a somewhat eclectic lineup such as the 1997 Testarossa "Sleepy Hollow Vineyard" Pinot Noir ($59), a wine for which Roberts claims to have secured the entire Dallas allocation. But it's when you get up into the higher-echelon wines that Lola creeps into value territory. For example, the Grgich Hills Chardonnay sells for $59, while Louis Roederer Cristal, a prestige cuvee, sells for $150. These wines sell for $68 and $240 respectively at Il Solé. He sells Opus One, the cultish proprietary red from the partnership of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Moton Rothschild in Bordeaux, for $140. That same bottle is available at Maguire's Regional Cuisine for $200. "I'm blowing through a lot of it," says Roberts of the Opus.
Samford says Lola is also blowing through a lot of the grilled sika venison with white cheddar grits and wilted collard, mustard, and baby spinach greens. Originally from Japan, the sika is a type of deer that was raised expressly to grace the emperor's gardens. These deer come from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, where deer are raised on the range and harvested individually. Dark sika medallions are arranged around a dollop of smooth grits topped with crisp greens and bacon. The meat protrudes out of the center of the plate like flanges. It's tender, silky, and mildly rich -- like butter -- and is sauced with the same port demi-glace that surrounds the foie gras. Only here it seems richer, more intense, a fact that Samford attributes to drippings from the wilted greens.
Nearly as buttery is the peppercorn beef tenderloin with blue cheese demi-glace. This dish is a tight little pile of subtle contrasts: the peppercorn crunch of the exterior against the tender, satiny interior; the smooth sweetness of the meat against the surging raciness of the blue cheese crumbles in the cabernet demi-glace. A side of supple potato dauphinoise, a layering of thin potato slices with cream and Romano cheese, makes this dish a sumptuous twist on steak and potatoes.
One dish that, though delicious, doesn't come off with the same near flawless posture as the rest of the menu items explored here, is the Southern-fried quail with roasted garlic whipped potatoes. Marinated in raspberry vinegar and cream, the meat is plump, moist, and sweet. But the well-seasoned pastry flour and semolina coating is too thick and cumbersome, clobbering this delicate bird. The edge of one of my dining companion's plate was piled with bits of the brittle reddish-gold casings, an indication the coating is too much of a distraction.
Which isn't needed here. Roberts hasn't done much to this cozy house-cum-eatery other than paint, refinish the woodwork, reupholster some of the bar furniture, and add a wine rack. He's also filled it with paintings, not his own, and fresh flowers to add warmth. Lola cuts effortlessly elegant and clean dining lines through and through, lines that include a patio that lets you dine in the breeze. Come to think of it, that C70 comes in ragtop duds. Maybe vending Volvos has more to do with fine dining than we think.
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