Speaking truth to foodies, my friend Uke confessed her bias – flat-out, right in the first paragraph – in a glowing (and lovingly written) August review of Caiolas. Her frankness gave me the courage to do something I’d been avoiding for months: write a full-fledged review of Bar Lola.
Ya see, I love Bar Lola.
I love the food. I love the menu structure. I love the complete lack of pretension of owners Guy & Stella Hernandez. In short, I am horribly biased.
So, if you abhor odes – you might as well stop reading now.
But, if you want to know why Bar Lola is one of the best, most consistent and welcoming restaurants in Portland – read on.
Perhaps it is merely this patron’s perception, but a conspicuous lack of drama seems to set the vibe at Bar Lola. Out front, Stella’s keen eye and palpable calm make you feel comfortably coddled. Sneaking glances into the kitchen, you sense that Guy loves the slicing, dicing and creating. Employees appear happy. Somewhere angels sing. . .
Okay, before I go completely off the rails on this love letter, I do have two negative things to say.
- The romantic lighting is not conducive to my already lame iPhone photography (see photo, right)
- In the five-course “Feed Me” dinner I’m about to describe, I wasn’t completely enamored with the opening round – a pork belly “snack.”
The Review Part
Bar Lola structures its menu into five sections: small, medium, large, salads and sweet. Experience it as you like. Pick one from each and throw in wine pairings. Simply have a small and a large. Go crazy with the mediums (an approach favored by a fellow blogger and Bar Lola lover), or let the kitchen decide and choose “Feed Me.”
For this review I cashed in my chips and went all in: Feed Me ($44) with wine pairings ($24). I received a dish from each grouping (er, actually TWO from medium), wine pairings with all but the salad, and a sizable “snack” to begin.
Adam had to roll me home.
Round One: Snack
(The aforementioned) Seared Pork Belly With Cucumber Slaw.
While good, it lacked the profoundly delicious nature of everything that followed. Slightly too charred, the belly couldn’t match the lusciousness of the “Japanese Big Mac” I enjoyed recently at Pai Men.
Let’s move on – shall we?
Round Two: Medium
Orecchiette with Olive oil, Pangritata and Portuguese Sardines
Pangritata is a Southern Italian flash of brilliance. Oft made from stale bread, herbs, crushed garlic and olives, it’s a “poor man’s Parmigiano.”
Wearing a delicate coating of this savory substitute, the tender, ear-shaped pasta and the plump, salty sardines mingled in my mouth – joined by flecks of spinach and a nose-tingling dash of red pepper flakes. I can’t remember the last time something tasted so singularly sublime.
Each bite was better than the last. I wanted to dive into a vat of if it and eat my way out. Instead, I settled with sipping the paired wine (a Michel Lynch Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux), which flawlessly corralled the red pepper’s heat.
Round Three: Medium
Applewood Smoked Duck Breast with Morse’s Sauerkraut and Mustard
This is one dish the Hernandez’ tend to keep on the menu, and the one – if permanently removed – would drive Adam to Hari Kari. My acerbic cynic of a man morphs into a sentimental poet each time he eats it.
He ordered it for himself (thank God – I’m not beyond wielding my fork as a weapon) and voiced (more than once) exactly what I was thinking: smoke and sour together is the culinary world’s gift to the tastebuds.
Particularly in this dish.
Rosy slices of succulent smoked duck cap a mound of pungent sauerkraut so saucey and laced with mustard that the grains flow in a river around the plate. I was so enjoying it – closing my eyes and chewing at a snail’s pace – that I almost forgot to drink my wine: a lovely Leese-Finch Pinot Noir from Monterey.
Round Four: Salad
Roasted Lentil Salad with Carrots and Mini Brussel Sprouts
If you read AP much, you know I’m obsessed with earthy flavors. Bitter and earthy – even better. This dish fit my fetish to a “T.” Tinged with the tang of tarragon and doused with a mustardy vinaigrette – it tasted like Fall.
Superbly roasted lentils and carrots, blessedly bitter brussel sprouts and a drizzle of aromatic oil. Simply yum.
Round Five: Large
Cod Loin with Sauteed Vegetables, Ponzu and Toasted Sesame Seeds
Immaculately cooked to a buoyant firmness, this meaty hunk of white fish charmed me with its simplicity. Flecked with a light, peppery coating, it floated in a cunning ponzu sauce.
Complex, with strains of citrus, soy, mirin, and dashi – all flavor-forward and easy to detect – the sauce was nonetheless subtle and weightless enough to not overpower the fish. Ingenious.
A white Spanish Rioja (crafted from 60-year old vines) paired nicely, curbing the ponzu’s acidity with smoke and spice.
Round Six: Sweet
I have to confess. At this point, my stomach was bulging and I could only nibble. Note taking screeched to a halt (hence the cryptic titling). I have hazy memories of a flaky crust, a dusting of powered sugar and a creamy almond filling.
Sharper scenes of previous Bar Lola desserts prevail in my grey matter, however. A honey and yogurt panna cotta comes close to being the best in town (although I give the edge to Bresca’s buttermilk), and the Trio of Cheeses always pleases.
Wrapping It Up
Bar Lola – beloved by many, but commonly overlooked on lists of Portland’s best – deserves better. Much better. It ranks high on MY list of favorites – and certainly is one of the most creative and pleasant fine dining experiences in town.