Lolita Restaurant

By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Meredith Perdue

An array of small plates, served with careful attention to flavor and texture. Local, seasonal ingredients used to maximum advantage. Well-balanced cocktails and a confident, savvy wine list. The sense that you’re the only diner who really matters in a small but bustling dining room. You could use all of these phrases to describe both Bar Lola — Guy and Stella Hernandez’s Munjoy Hill institution, which the couple closed in November 2013 after seven years — and Lolita, the intriguing new restaurant they’ve opened just a few doors down on Congress Street. But while both restaurants’ broad outlines are similar, Lolita feels quite new — as if your dear friend got a chic haircut, a killer pair of shoes, and a fascinating new career to discuss over drinks.

That sense of reinvention was what the Hernandezes were after when they started thinking about Lolita, which they opened in collaboration with Neil Reiter, a marketer and investor who lives in Brooklin. “We wanted to relax, to remove all the labels,” says Guy, the restaurant’s chef. “The wine and food are parallel forces, and they’re transparently prepared,” adds Stella, who serves as wine director and runs the front of the house. “The wine’s on the wall, there’s a box of fire that’s open to view. You can see all the pieces come together right in front of you.”

That box of fire — a custom wood grill built into the wall between the bar and the open kitchen — is the most visible demonstration of the partners’ commitment to a very modern combination of Old World and DIY values. The slicer is hand cranked, the espresso shots are hand pulled on a lever espresso machine, and the Mediterranean-inspired dishes often consist of no more than one or two peak-quality ingredients, prepared for greatest impact. Counterintuitively, this rustic, radical simplicity can be a bit of a high-wire act: As Stella says, “The simpler the process, the more precise each step has to be.”

But there’s no sense of anxiety or stress in the narrow room, where bottles of wine on rustic wood shelves serve as décor and the soundtrack meanders from world music to the Rolling Stones. You can stop for a leisurely lunch — perhaps a salad and a glass of a South African Chenin Blanc — or come by after work for some salumi and New England cheeses at the stainless steel bar. Open from 11 a.m. right through to late-night service, Lolita is an ideal destination for a bleak midwinter afternoon, when you can hunker down at a banquette and order a perfect Old Fashioned and what the menu describes as “Toasts, Pots, Snacks”: small samplings of creamy burrata smeared on sourdough toast, a smooth and slightly spicy sardine rillette, addictive pickled mussels with tangy olive oil, and pickled shallots.

Alternately, you can line up a date (and maybe a reservation) for the evening and work your way through the menu as you please. It’s particularly pleasant to order a few nibbles and a cocktail while discussing the various options among Lolita’s small, medium, and large plates. Consider starting the conversation over the small, pristine shishito peppers — mostly sweet, but occasionally thrillingly spicy — which are blistered on the wood grill, then sprinkled with sea salt and accompanied by aioli for dipping.

You can stop for a leisurely lunch — perhaps a salad and a glass of a South African Chenin Blanc — or come by after work for some salumi and New England cheeses at the stainless steel bar.

If you can swing the $90 price tag, don’t miss the porterhouse bistecca, which serves at least three. Guy sears a gorgeous three-inch-thick porterhouse — filet mignon on one side of the bone, New York strip steak on the other — in the wood oven, then presents it at the table. The hunk of beef is then taken back to the kitchen, sliced, placed on a heated platter, drizzled with hot rosemary-infused olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and arrayed alongside crisp, fresh greens.

Just seven months in, dishes like the mussels and the bistecca are already crowd favorites. At the same time, Lolita prides itself on its ability to take advantage of exceptional products in small quantities — say, a single case of Cru Beaujolais or enough rabbit to serve eight diners. With a wine list that’s more than 80 bottles strong, Stella is more than happy to chaperone patrons as they choose the right bottle for their palates and pocketbooks. “If I get to do that two or three times a night, I go home happy,” she says. It’s one of the many reasons that Lolita is likely to become just as beloved as its predecessor. “Service is the reward for the work you do all day long.”

Lolita Restaurant
90 Congress Street
Portland, 207-775-5652