As Wichita continues to expand eastward to support the newest tract housing developments, the 21st and Greenwich area has become a hotbed of activity for new dining options. Nearby, one of the city’s easternmost restaurants — Lola’s Bistro, which opened in October 2017 at 2146 N. Collective Lane — has attempted to join the ranks of the few upscale dining options we have in the city.
The idea of dressing up and going to a place with limited menus and entrees approaching $30 has never caught much wind in Wichita, whether it’s because of the rigid frugality of Wichita’s older population or just changing trends in the industry. The tastes of today’s diners have trended toward a diverse series of more casual and authentic food experiences, such as Japanese ramen, Nashville hot chicken or Hawaiian poke. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the kind of restaurant that can provide a composed and well-cooked dish to diners in search of a meal worth celebrating, and you can find it at Lola’s Bistro.
The restaurant belongs to Michael Abay, a seasoned chef in the area for many years who has tenures at the old Olive Tree and Tallgrass Country Club. His experience in the industry is evident in the restaurant’s execution, from the bright open interior, muted color scheme, and even the logo itself, which communicates the type of upscale environment Lola’s strives to be.
The menu continues this theme, offering a focused and restrained collection of entrees. It’s best described as New American, pulling from a variety of different cultural influences. Plates are simple and elegant, showcasing the particular protein, such as the supple halibut, cooked in banana leaves and elegantly served in a mushroom broth, or the highly-acclaimed duck breast, cooked sous vide, seared to be crispy, and complemented with some bitter spinach and sweet potato puree to balance the slight gaminess.
Abay’s emphasis on the quality of the ingredients makes for a largely successful menu, though there’s some room for improvement in dish composition: Many of the dishes rely on purees, and some don’t feel like a complete meal due to a lack of starch or vegetable. The aforementioned halibut dish, which was served with nothing but mushrooms and broth, left us wondering if the $27 price tag — the second-most expensive entree on the menu — couldn’t have afforded some rice or lentils to round out the rest of the dish.
On future visits, we ordered extra sides from the a la carte menu just to make sure we had enough to eat. It came in handy with the excellent homemade beef cheek raviolis, served in a rich demi glace and spiked with little dollops of pesto, but the four raviolis sat atop celery root puree that didn’t satiate without the help of a side order of spinach.
One influence is more prominent than others, stemming from Abay’s Filipino heritage. Lola’s is more interesting when that influence is felt in the menu, no more so than in the chicken adobo entree, marinated in soy and vinegar and topped with achara, a condiment made from pickled green papaya, carrots and peppers. It’s immensely complex, sweet and sour in a way that serves as a bright spot on a menu that otherwise checks the boxes with preparations of the usual proteins.
It’s clear where Abay’s heart lies; he (and you) should steer into that inclination as much as possible, whether it’s crispy lumpia on the appetizer menu or Portuguese sausage and garlic rice for brunch.
From the time the amuse bouche arrives at the table, it’s clear that everyone is trying hard to make Lola’s Bistro a premium destination that competes with some of the most upscale restaurants in the city. It’s mostly successful, though it’ll stay that way only so long as the front and the back of the house continue to challenge themselves and strive toward building upon what they’ve been able to achieve.
Some of my fondest memories were made in fancier restaurants: The elevated food, combined with the company and the occasion, can make for a night to remember. Lola’s Bistro can easily serve as the backdrop to some of those memories waiting to be made.
Where: 2146 N. Collective Lane, 316-613-2223
Type of food: New American/Filipino
Alcohol: Full bar
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Lounge opens at 3:30