The only thing better than witnessing a fierce thunderstorm is watching the rain pummel the road while you sip red wine, munch on tapenade and fresh baguette, and sit next to a fireplace and a loved one. It’s enough to make you wish the tempest would rage on.
So it was on a recent dark and windy night at LoLo, which takes its name from Lower Lonsdale, the neighbourhood the restaurant calls home. The corner spot specializes in artisan cheeses and charcuterie, as well as flatbreads and spreads. The emphasis is on small plates meant for sharing paired with wine and craft beers.
Gastown’s Salt Tasting Room was one of the first to see the potential for meat, cheese, and wine sampling to catch on in Metro Vancouver, but LoLo owner and veteran sommelier Michael Moller says he was inspired by his Hungarian grandmother, who routinely served up a range of spicy sausages, cured salamis, and pungent cheeses to snack on.
If the style of dining has a European flair, the unpretentious restaurant a few blocks from the Lonsdale Quay SeaBus terminal also stays firmly focused on the local. The menu proudly highlights suppliers such as Moccia’s Italian Meat Market, J N & Z Deli, Oyama Sausage Company, and Mike Vitow (who’s become famous for his corned beef, which he sells at Granville Island).
Walking into the small space from the gale was welcoming, sort of; the cube-shaped gas fireplace beckoned, but the entrance itself is spare, set off from the rest of the room only by a tall plant that barely conceals a piano for the nights when there’s live music. Waiting to be greeted can leave you with that awkward feeling of standing in the middle of a room, mainly because you are. But a window table next to the hearth proved ideal for the unhurried, varied, and mostly satisfying meal that followed.
Selection is abundant here, almost overwhelming, particularly with the daily meat and cheese rosters to choose from in addition to the regular menu. This visit had a Quebec and a B.C. blue cheese on offer, two Danish goat cheeses, and a 12-month-old Manchego. Then there was Norway’s Nokkel, spikily alive with caraway, cloves, and cumin seeds; Quebec’s garlicky, earthy 1608 de Charlevoix; and the impossible-to-resist Comox Brie from Natural Pastures Cheese Company. Cheese plates designed by chef Oscar Zaragoza range from $12 to $15, or you can pick three cheeses yourself for around the same price.
All of the meats go for $9 with the exception of Moccia’s fennel dry-cured salami ($8). Among the choices facing us were Oyama’s Pastis-flavoured Berkshire saucisson sec and the air-dried, gently spiced Bresaola di Valtellina.
The cheeses and charcuterie are all served with baguette and Zaragoza’s freshly made chutneys (such as tamarind or peach), mustards, gelées, and pickles done in-house. You could easily pass an evening picking from the ever-changing meats and cheeses and imagine you’re kicking back in a sidewalk café along the Danube.
Then there’s the rest of the menu, which includes soups, sandwiches, and stews such as the hearty LoLo Cassoulet ($13), made with smoked duck, chorizo, pork, and beans.
Contemplating the menu, we were somewhat flummoxed—it was, after all, the end of a long, miserable day—and, much to our relief, our server stepped in to guide us. She explained portion sizes and which items worked well together, and we felt confident in her advice. If every waiter out there were as knowledgeable and forthright as she was, there’d be no such thing as a lousy tip.
Cumin-dusted almonds ($4) were only subtly spiced, while the house olive blend ($6) had a bolder character: marinated in a mixture of garlic, cherry vinegar, and orange juice, the mix of sun-dried black, cerignola, barese, and arbequina olives hit the right seductive tone.
Springy baby greens ($8) were tossed with crisp red onion, thinly sliced almonds, and a delicate orange and poppy seed vinaigrette, all of the flavours evenly balanced, a boon to the health-conscious foodie.
It was tough to choose between the seven tempting spreads, but the fig and black olive tapenade ($7) jumped out. It didn’t disappoint. The ingredients paired up for an intriguing dance, the fruit bursting forward before gradually receding to make way for the deeper, calmer presence of the olives. The white bean and artichoke spread ($6), which had a light garlic undertone, somehow got tastier with each bite.
Zaragoza has nailed the texture of flatbreads: thin (but not too thin) and pillowy. The one with pulled pork ($9) was our server’s favourite item off the entire menu; it’s so juicy it’s known as a “five-napkin-and-a-cloth” item. The combination of sweet-and-spicy meat, lively pickled cabbage, and horseradish cream made for a jolt of flavour.
Less delectable was the Spicy Hot Chorizo Trio flatbread ($9). The chipotle hummus lacked fire and was overly dry, while the sausage itself was mild rather than spicy.
While not every dish made our taste buds sing, there was no complaining about the prices. Everything is reasonable, from the food to the bottles of wine, which start at $20. (The menu features several suggestions for food-and-wine pairings, and Moller has a beer-and-cheese-matching event in the works.) With a bottle of wine and more food than our bellies needed, our bill came to $80 before tax and tip.
Besides feeling full and that we had gotten good value for our money, we were relaxed—so much so that we didn’t even care how hard it was raining when we left.