SADLY, THIS RESTAURANT CLOSED IN EARLY 2010
For the past six months, my friend Nancy has been trying to get me to go to Lovely Hula Hands. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested. I’d given it a try the first week after they moved north from their old location on Mississippi, and wasn’t terribly impressed. Additionally, many of the items on the menu didn’t really appeal to me. Fortunately, Nancy kept bringing it up, and one evening after having a few too many drinks down the street, I wandered in. I wasn’t quite prepared for the food that was to follow. Since that night, I’ve been back four times in a more sober state of mind, and have been just as appreciative.
Troy MacLarty was working at at Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, before being lured to Portland by the much maligned Michael Hebberoy. As things began to melt down in the Hebberoy empire, he left, reappearing later at Simpatica, and finally at Lovely Hula Hands which had just moved into a much larger space.
When I heard Hula Hands was relocating, I walked up and down Mississippi Avenue trying to figure out where it would be opening. The only possibility was a 1923 brick two story building which was impossibly dilapidated. Watching the slow pace of construction, I think this was a pretty good assessment – it took a long time and lots of money to bring it back to life, including removing the entire interior of the building, floors and all. But step inside the completed project, and that is forgotten. Owners Sara and Jane Minnick’s vision has resulted in a space that is warm and comfortable, yet retains the feel of the old building. Period woodwork, light fixtures, pale Florida Coral paint and 1930’s era flowered prints set the tone, making it a cozy, intimate space.
I usually order the rosemary focaccia with a rotating olive oil, so I have something to munch on while I study the menu. The bread is homemade; tender on the inside but with a slight crunchy exterior and just the right amount of salt and rosemary. It’s served warm in a pool of good olive oil, most recently Terra Madre. My only complaint is sometimes there is a bit too much oil, leaving the bread overly soggy; a minor quibble. The portion is easily enough for two ($4).
Lovely Hula Hands has a full bar, and the drinks are well executed. Many of them are enjoyable classics, like the sazerac, Tom Collins, or a darn good hot toddy, with fresh lemon, honey, and Makers Mark ($7). They also throw in some original ideas, like the Beauty Mark with Makers, fresh orange juice, and a few sour cherries for the mark, or Talulah’s bathwater which is quickly gaining popularity: pomegranate molasses, tequila, fresh lime and sugar ($7). In addition, the cocktail menu contains a good selection of hot drinks, like the cocao Inez made from Dagoba spicy hot chocolate and brandy, topped with whipped cream ($7).
Salads are inspired and perfectly executed; in my opinion, some of the best in the city. On my second visit I had the radicchio with pear butter vinaigrette, brie, and glistening candied pecans. It was like a brie butter fog had settled over the leaves. I wanted to lie down in it. This was an exceptional effort that shows just how much you can do with a salad ($7). I tried to get my partner to taste it, but she couldn’t hear me; instead transfixed by her smoked trout, avocado and blood orange salad. It was like music, a perfect harmony of ingredients, which featured a generous amount of each element on top of immaculate curly escarole and a stunning herbal vinaigrette. The smokiness of the trout shone through, while the creamy avocado and bright citrus notes of the orange tied everything together in a great fugue – a masterpiece ($8).
Dishes rotate on and off depending on the season, but they often seem to have some sort of carpaccio. A few weeks ago it was six thin slices of yellowtail, arranged in a fan across the plate, dotted with an unusual bright green harissa, a variation on the North African-inspired sauce that’s hot, salty and sour at the same time. At the base of the fan lay a salad of fennel and citrus. Together, the complementary flavors were just perfect ($10)
One cold and rainy night I dropped by for soup and salad. The soup was lentil, warming and slightly salty, loaded with flavor from the spicy sausage. It was one of the better soups I’ve had ($6). The salad was made of fennel, grapefruit, olives and a good feta. It was amazing, like the sun of the Mediterranean on a plate. I walked out with the weight of the dreary week lifted from my shoulders ($7).
The most recent time I visited Hula Hands, I had the leek and goat cheese soufflé with sauté of wild mushrooms, spinach, carrots and cippolini onions. The soufflé itself is small, but quite filling, and loaded with flavor. This is an earthy, winter dish. It arrives on a large plate, with an abundance of mushrooms scattered around the outside, and lots of perfectly cooked vegetables. This is another example of a dish that can be so pedestrian in a lesser chef’s hands made into something which stops conversation while you give your dining companions a taste. The overall result is much lighter than you might expect ($17).
The Carlton Farms pork shoulder with figs is another excellent choice. The bowl arrives with two large pieces of shoulder that are moist and fall apart with light fork pressure. The sauce is a shimmering dark brown, while the carrots and other vegetables provide splashes of color. The figs give a great burst of flavor, a reminder that summer will eventually return. Recently Hula Hands started doing a version of this dish with red wine and prunes, root vegetables and Anson Mills cornmeal. It is also excellent, and even though I’m not thrilled about polenta, this example won me over ($20).
For those with a simple meal in mind, a burger is available. It is better than most; a generous patty, slightly seasoned, with the meat cooked just as you ordered ($9.00). I like it with cheddar ($9.50), though it is available with a buttermilk bleu cheese and caramelized onion which was a bit too heavy ($10.50). The accompanying fries are addictive, served with the skin still on, crisp and salty. I’d get the burger just to have them, though you can substitute a salad.
The dessert list is small, but well executed. The blood orange upside down cake served with whipped cream was moist and dense, the caramelized brown sugar and orange topping adding a decadent twist to this classic dessert. A bowl of chocolate and banana beignets with coffee ice cream made me snap at my friends when they reached towards me with their forks; I wanted them for myself. They are served hot, shimmering with sugar in a little dipping pool of warm chocolate sauce. Bite down and you get an explosion of warm chocolate and bananas. This is perfect comfort food. Both desserts are $7.00. If you just want something warm, try the hot chocolate, made with a quality bar chocolate, it’s better than I have had in any other restaurant in town, and shows the attention to detail over the smallest things.
There aren’t many drawbacks to Hula Hands. They are firmly on my list of top Portland restaurants. Service is excellent, there when you need it, but not hovering. I love the upstairs with its romantic seats next to the windows. In the warmer months, a large deck stretches out from the back of the restaurant, providing a great space to while away a warm evening. Even better, it’s not difficult for a couple to have a really nice meal for around $60. One issue; Lovely Hula Hands is very popular. On many nights, expect a cramped wait in the entrance, only separated from the dining room by a sheer curtain. They don’t generally take reservations, though they will work with you if you have a large party, and don’t mind dining early. If you haven’t tried this restaurant in a while, go back, even if for nothing but a salad. It is a worthwhile stop for a special evening out.
- Phone: (503) 445-9910
- Address: 4057 N Mississippi Ave, Portland OR. 97227
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 5pm – 10pm.
- Website: LovelyHulaHands.com