Lingering at Bar Lola
It’s almost always easier to be dull than clever, but I’m tempted to say that Bar Lola is one of those bright little restaurants, never dull, certainly not chic or trendy with interiors untouched by starchitect babblings. Instead it’s an appealing neighborhood eatery astride Munjoy Hill that can hold its own in a bigger world. In fact, I had an incredible dinner there the other night.
Yet, I never cared much about the restaurant since it opened six years ago. Friends of mine praised it highly and I tagged along a few times but was never impressed.
Since I’ve been everywhere else lately in Portland, and the thinning crop of new restaurants hasn’t lured me through their doors yet, I decided to give Bar Lola another try.
Its menu is based on multiple choices. That is, small plates prevail, some barely tapas sized and others less modest. So a diner can go for a light repast (or cheap meal) or go whole hog and order the prix fixe tasting menu that allows you to choose one dish from five categories.
It’s divided into Small, Medium, Salads, Large, and Sweets—otherwise translated to tapas, first courses, salads, entrees, and desserts.
Since even the largest offering, the entrée, is still a modest portion, we opted for the tasting menu, which gave us a chance to sample ten dishes from start to finish and not leave the table overindulged.
My dinner partner started with a small plate of pickled black local radishes with duck confit and cabbage. I had the oysters poached with leeks and cream with a hint of chorizo oil.Both dishes were intensely flavorful. My oysters were so good that I sopped up the remaining juices left in the shell with several snippets of bread. The radish preparation was a revelation as well; the combination of piquant radish and preserved duck is genius.
On to the salad course: I had the celery root and carrot mélange dressed with apples and curry aioli dressings. It was a light but exuberant dish.
My companion’s shaved fennel salad with citrus and smashed olive was another dose of novelty.
For our next course—Medium on the menu—I chose the soup, which was a puree of vegetable stock, giant Peruvian white beans and smoked paprika, with the large beans interspersed for garnish. It was very rich and robust, but no standout like the other dishes. My companion chose the charcuterie plate with American cured sopresata from a local producer in Iowa, a faultless dollop of chicken liver pate, prosciutto, and grainy mustard. All of the elements were excellent and served as a smooth transition to the main course.
I opted for the pan seared cobia and my friend had the ricotta gnocchi. Cobia is one of those firm fleshed white fish so stable that you can slice it like steak. Here the chef pan seared it and served it over a very vibrant, tasty mélange of edamame and green beans and shallots. The dressing for me was more flavorful than the fish; overall it was a pleasant dish, which needed either less sear or more kick. The gnocchi were first rate. These can often be as dense as hockey pucks, but these fluffy pillows of pasta had just the right texture with a nice little sauce of chard, raisins, and pine nuts.
For dessert my dinner mate had the cream puffs with blood orange sabayon and I chose the steamed toffee and date pudding. Both of these easily assuaged our sweet quotient.
Chef/proprietor Guy Hernandez is truly a talented chef, an inventor of exotic flavors, and unique combinations.
Why I never cottoned to the place in the past is a mystery. I think I felt the ambiance too dull and the room uncomfortable. This time the experience worked on all levels. The service is thoughtful and the kitchen keeps up to speed. I’m glad to add it to my list of five or six Portland restaurants that I go to regularly for pure gustatory indulgence.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.