I was an hour into dinner when I realized this place used to be Spiro's. No matter how familiar you might have been with that old spot, you'll have to squint to see it in the thoroughly made-over LoLa Bistro & Bar. With its vaulted ceilings, wooden bar, and tiled dining area, it bears little or no resemblance to its predecessor.
LoLa is owned by John Diamantopoulos (J.D. Oxford's, Karma, and Barfly), but is run by former Karma chef David Bunts, who also worked with Jason Soule at the Grill at Water Street. Somehow, I had the impression LoLa was yet another high-end eatery, duking it out with 2Vine, Max, and the rest. The Monroe Avenue location, with its notorious parking and sometimes questionable street life, seemed a risky choice.
But LoLa is really more of a pub, like Hogan's or the Empire Brewing Company. Instead of paté and carpaccio, it has quesadillas and gnocchi. Instead of bouillabaisse, there's jambalaya. None of the entrées hit $20, and a burger is just $6 with fries. Suddenly, the business and its location make perfect sense.
When my wife and I ordered soups, an appetizer, and sandwiches with fries, we were swamped. She loved the tortilla soup, heavily spiced with cumin in a chicken and onion base, with fried tortilla strips both festive and texturally satisfying ($4). Like many items at LoLa, it was hearty but not heavy. French onion soup was decent, falling on the right side of the salty-to-flavorful spectrum, and its fontina and French bread crust was well-executed ($4).
The spicy chicken quesadilla was fabulous --- they usually aren't --- and a solid meal ($9). Bunts marinates and grills the juicy chicken; adds caramelized onions, a mixture of roasted mushrooms, and cheese; and serves it in a flaky corn tortilla with fine pico and guacamole. My blue cheese burger was almost great, though a bit past medium. Still, it was excellent beef, I dug the caramelized onions and bacon, and Maytag blue, boring on its own, worked here. Much better was the smoked salmon sandwich, with cucumber, tomato, and a roasted fennel rémoulade on a toasted baguette ($6 with fries). My mouth waters just thinking about it.
City contributor Michael Warren Thomas and I found the fried calamari to be another screaming deal, with an enormous pile and what amounted to a side salad for just $8. The squid was tender, and the romesco sauce was outstanding, though the coating could be lighter. Bunts says his roasted butternut squash tortellini filling includes, "a whole shelf of spices and seasonings." Three for $9 sounds steep, but these were Italian-Grandma-sized, with thick, hearty pasta (Michael Warren Thomas prefers lighter pasta, but he's wrong). The apple-cider-cream reduction and sautéed spinach worked perfectly.
You want more salad than what came with your appetizer? Try the pecan-crusted goat cheese, for which Bunts roasts his own nuts ($8). Perhaps the bacon was going a bit too far, but is bacon ever a mistake? The sun-dried cherry champagne vinaigrette lit it up nicely.
Bunts sets the bar high and clears it. We didn't want to try penne in pesto cream with shrimp, crawdad tail meat, sun-dried tomato, feta, artichoke, and spinach with seared monkfish ($18). I mean, be serious. But the train stayed on the tracks, and every addition added to the whole. The cream sauce was light and delicious with the sweet crawdad, and the depth of the seared monkfish was a well-placed contrast. It was also plenty for two to share.
LoLa is a bar, and has the unfortunate problem of cigarette smoke wafting around. That's particularly bad at the tables near the bar. In the actual dining area, it was less noticeable, but would still bother those who are sensitive to the issue. It's also dark, which makes reading the menu difficult and dulls the beauty of the presentations. The service was friendly and competent, with a bit of attitude and personality (our host confided about how "tacky" he finds having to adjust the feet of the tables to level them). As Bunts said, if you're looking for a quiet, fine dining experience, you're probably in the wrong place.
But if you can handle the environment, LoLa is a fine value. Bunts puts together pub food with saucier style, in epic proportions, at reasonable prices. He is almost always there, meaning his personal stamp is on everything. He plans to open for lunch (when smoke should be less of an issue) in April, and I can't wait for that.
LoLa Bistro & Bar, 630 Monroe Avenue, 271-0320. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.
What a way to launch a bakery. Julia Eberle of Cobblestone Creek Bakery won the Grand Prize at the 16th Annual Chocolate Ball in Rochester on February 1. Although currently working out of Juniper Beans in Honeoye Falls, she will be opening her own spot this spring in East Bloomfield, near the Holloway House and the seasonal ice cream powerhouse, Custard & Candy.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 a.m. to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 a.m. to noon. Archives of past shows are available at www.SavorLife.com.