A little whine

Munjoy's new Lolita revives a classic narrative
By BRIAN DUFF  |  September 5, 2014


“TOASTS, POTS, AND SNACKS" Bar Lola’s small plate menu covers the bases.

Smaller is better. Wasn’t that the point of Nabokov’s novel? It’s hard to recall, since I read it so long ago and the words were so big. I think that was one of the takeaways. Smaller is better is something the new Munjoy Hill restaurant Lolita also conveys in several ways. Some other lessons of Lolita are that something simpler and less challenging can be lovely, and that some cheap wine could really loosen things up. I am talking about the restaurant.

Lolita is the new venture from Stella and Guy Hernandez of Bar Lola. The new space is smaller and cozier—warm with old wood and red shelving, but distinguished by striking industrial-meets-old world lighting, a zinc bar, and the flicker of flames from the wood grill in back. Seating is along a row of tables across from a bar, and three tables out front. You get a familiar warm greeting from Stella, who (along with Stephanie at Schulte and Herr) is the best front-of-the-house proprietor in Portland—you feel in good hands with hello.

Even the plates are smaller at Lolita—in one way at least. The menu’s division into small, medium, and large plates is familiar from Bar Lola days. But the new menu has a section of “toasts, pots, and snacks” with smaller plates still. These little dishes do perfectly what that place Spread hoped to do—combine great bread with a variety of creamy takes on strong and interesting flavors. At three for $10, this is a great part of the menu. 

A warm little ramekin of spiced sardine was remarkably creamy and fluffy—perhaps thanks to ample olive oil. The restrained kick of spice let you taste the fish. Burrata cheese was creamy and fresh—decadent but brightened up by lemon zest and spice. Salt cod offered a bit more texture and chew, both enhanced by bits of chorizo. The local mushrooms were appealingly musky, funky, and chewy.

The rest of the menu resembles Bar Lola in tripartite form, but with dishes generally less intricate and complex—heartier and with more subtle surprises. Among the ($9) small plates, the bone marrow is closest cousin to the spreads. Its simple pale, quivering, creamy richness spread over toast is like an especially decadent sort of butter. Rapini is cooked briefly to let the bitter flavor predominate over the salt of anchovies and heat of chili.

The medium dishes are the most intriguing on the page, and they deliver on it. In one dish, black trumpets brought out the earthy side of mackerel filet. Lentils, served with just pickled beets, could not have been more perfectly tender or expertly seasoned. Torchino pasta enlivens a simple creamy tomato sauce with the spice and texture of crumbled nduja sausage and the pop of fresh peas. 

Large plates—there are three—don’t intrigue like the others, though the hangar steak with salsa verde is quite good. The inclusion of a huge $90 steak for sharing simply comments on the appeal of all the smaller variety on offer.

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