Though open less than a week, Lolita already belongs in a wondrous gastronomic playground—not just on the trendy peaks of Munjoy Hill but rather on one of the highest rungs of Portland’s dynamic restaurant scene.
The room is cozy with an edge. It feels very European in its nonchalance, a neighborhood bistro. Since it serves from 11:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night with just a few changes between its daytime and evening menus, saying it’s “open for lunch and dinner” doesn’t tell the story. You eat what you want any time of the day and night.
At first glance you might think, Geez, another one of those small-plate restaurants? Aren’t we getting a little tired of them already? I suppose it depends on where you go. A place like Hugo’s has the good sense to have a 2- or 4-course menu even if it translates to 5 to 10 plates of varying girth coming from the kitchen. Central Provisions, on the other hand, is small-plates personified. Oh but it’s so good, who’s complaining?
Lolita falls somewhere in the middle. There are small plates, somewhat larger small plates, large plates and dessert—with cheese, pizza, fish, charcuterie, beef, pork, lamb, olives, nuts and pasta, some of which are served on toast, crocks or pots.
While my first visit occurred at their press party with plenty of great bites like the rillettes of sardines, the next visit was late at night after returning from New York. It was nearly closing time but I was hungry for a drink and nibbles. Two plates were perfect. Burrata, that creamy derivative of mozzarella, was as soft as meringue, with a sprinkling of confit of lemon zest and a little bomb of Turkish Aleppo pepper oil, making it both sweet and tangy. Wonderful. Then a second plate—this time mushrooms were simply sautéed in thyme and garlic confit, a zesty savory that went so well with the sweet burrata.
Next time at lunch the kitchen’s creativity revealed itself beautifully. A ramekin of salt cod with toast points was not your ordinary mash of bacalao. Here the salt cod was poached in milk and garlic, pureed and spiked with Mexican chorizo. Served warm the simplicity of the flavors were tantalizingly delicious– the sweetness of the milk and saltiness of the fish and chorizo were complex and gratifying.
I paired the salt cod with a dish called Violino di Capra, basically cured, pressed lamb sliced very thin and served with an incredible pickled fennel and spicy whole-grain mustard. This was a dish of such yin and yang—I loved the sweet-sour fennel that tempered the intensity of the lamb–sheer bliss.
That is until I had the bucatini with ramp pesto. I literally scraped my bowl clean. I requested a half order of the pasta, which the kitchen happily obliged. The ramps are pickled, the pesto is made from the ramp leaves with almonds, Parmesan and lemon. Put it all together and it’s a taste sensation of the eighth wonder. If nothing else you must have this dish.
I don’t normally have dessert at lunch. But the cheesecake mousse sounded so good. If the pasta was out of this world, then this was definitely from a far-off universe. The texture was astounding. It didn’t wiggle like a gelatin-based mousse nor did it have the density of heavy cheesecake. Instead its texture was thick, with a silken creaminess. The “cake” is shaped like a quenelle and set in a luscious pool of rhubarb puree. According to sous chef Cameron Fernald who made the dessert it’s done by mixing together cream cheese, cream, a bit of flour, eggs and sugar and baked in a covered cake tin. It comes out firm. Then it’s put into a food processor and processed until it becomes very airy yet still somewhat dense. It’s an incredible dessert born from an unusual method.
A dinner visit gave me the opportunity to enjoy some of the larger plates and a few more smaller dishes. A salad of grilled peaches over arugula and Norumbega oysters with pickled onions were two delightful starters with intense flavor and texture. The main event was a wood-grilled game hen served with snow peas, grilled carrots–all lightly bathed in harissa. This was comfort food personified.
The kitchen relies on teamwork with its sous chefs working equally with co-proprietors Neil Reiter, Guy (chef) and Stella (manager) Hernandez . The team includes chefs Kimmo Meronen, Cameron Fernald and Meaghan Ruane who each have their style. The result is staggeringly exquisite food served in elegant, relaxed surroundings. Still, I thought it was curious for the ownership to leave their popular Bar Lola for this new venture in what seemed like compromised quarters. Happily that’s not the case at all. And sometimes geography does make a difference.