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All photos by Ted Axelrod.
They had me at burrata.
The creamy, rich variation on mozzarella is a rarity outside of big-city Italian food hubs, yet there it was — slathered on grilled sourdough bread brushed with olive oil, and sprinkled with slivers of lemon zest — among the enticing plates of tapas laid out on the bar for Lolita’s “soft opening” last night. Others were small dishes of whipped salted cod, sardine rillettes, and whipped ricotta to spread on more of the smoky toasted bread, along with ribbons of Serrano ham sliced paper thin on the hand-cranked Mito 300 slicer.
Lolita, the new restaurant from Guy and Stella Hernandez, and their partner, Neil Reiter, is a stunner. Several other guests mentioned that it’s hard to imagine the modern, urban-rustic space had ever been Hilltop Coffee (now located just up the block where the Hernandez’ former restaurant, Bar Lola, used to be). Lolita is billed as a “vinoteca and asador” — Spanish for “wine bar and wood grill”; its menu, which focuses on small plates and will be served from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., encourages grazing — although there are a few “large” (entree-sized) dishes and a porterhouse steak to serve three or more.
Tall, pale pink Paloma cocktails (Herradura silver tequila, lime, pink grapefruit juice and soda) in our hands, we joined fellow media folks and friends of the restaurant, nibbling happily on roasted whole almonds flecked with crisped sage and sea salt; cold mussels with pickled shallots; and grilled vegetables from the wood-fired grill on which much of the menu depends. Other sample plates offered luscious medallions of monkfish on little nests of collard greens with bacon, and slices of perfectly medium-rare steak with salsa verde (both small portions of one of “large” dishes).
Lolita will also offer a small dessert menu: cheesecake mousse with rhubarb and toasted oats; chocolate cake with Amaretto cream and ganache, gelato, milk and cookies; and apple tart for two; and a selection of cheeses served with bread and honeycomb. A well-curated wine list and selection of beer — three on tap available in two sizes — rounds out the beverage selections.
Guy’s culinary team includes chef de cuisine Kimmo Meronen (formerly of The Maine Table, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Salt Exchange). The chefs work in a small open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where the grill, with a crank that raises and lowers the grate above the fire, is both a key piece of cooking equipment and a defining element in architect Lauren Reiter’s design.
The grill, zinc bar and industrial lighting give the place exceptional style, but it’s almost secondary to the vibrant energy that radiates from Stella, Guy and their staff. When its 28 seats are full — as they surely will be often — Lolita will not necessarily be a place for a quiet evening. That’s just fine with me, however. I’ll take the happy buzz, a glass of wine — and an order of burrata.
Lolita, 90 Congress St., Portland will open to the public sometime next week. Here’s the menu: