Chintz Charming

After relocating to the northern end of the ever-expanding N Mississippi Ave in December, the new Lovely Hula Hands still offers similar atmospheric enchantment.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the February 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

Few restaurants possess enough atmosphere alone to win diners over so wholeheartedly that they’re willing to forgive the place any of its flaws. Nonetheless, when Lovely Hula Hands opened in a pink, wallpapered two-story Victorian that stood between the no-man’s-land along N Interstate Ave and up-and-coming N Mississippi Ave in 2003, its multiple dining rooms exerted just such an effect. Walking through the front door was like arriving at a jovial dinner party in someone’s home (in this case, the “home” of two winsome sisters, Sarah and Jane Minnick), and it didn’t seem to matter if the menu veered toward the overwhelmingly eclectic or if the food was a little rough around the edges.{% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:250 %}

After relocating to a more stately renovated brick building at the northern end of the ever-expanding boutique-and-restaurant-saturated N Mississippi Ave in December, the new Lovely Hula Hands still offers similar atmospheric enchantment. Dim light emanates from muted orange glass and metal chandeliers; walls the color of sun-drenched beeswax surround wooden tables decorated with flowers and votives; whimsical safari green and cream-colored curtains adorned with finches, juncos and wrens separate the entryway from the downstairs dining room. Lithe servers weave effortlessly between close-knit tables, taking drink orders without ever seeming to interrupt diners’ conversation. No wonder a cacophony of celebratory banter suffuses the restaurant each night.

While the shabby-genteel aesthetic and homespun vibe of the original location still grace the interior of its successor, everything feels just a little more polished and grown-up now, including—that lovely atmosphere is distracting, isn’t it?—the food. In the hands of new chef Troy McClarty (formerly of Ripe’s Family Supper), the menu no longer resembles the Asian-inspired fusion menu of previous chef Jesse Garcia. Instead, Italian, French and American traditions inform the seasonal fare here, in most cases to delicious effect.

Everything feels just a little bit more polished and grown-up.

Still, in accordance with Lovely Hula Hands’ size, the menu remains modestly small, offering six appetizers, six entrées and an excellent burger, but there are enough memorable dishes here to warrant repeat visits. An appetizer of grilled Belgian endive, for instance, drizzled with a piquant gribiche sauce—a Gallic mixture of minced shallots, parsley, tarragon, cornichons, capers, mustard, vinegar and hardboiled eggs—offered such a pleasing convolution of sweet, sour and bitter that I ordered it each time I returned. And the arancini —deep-fried spheres of risotto stuffed with chanterelles, parmesan and thyme—were the best I’ve had in Portland: crunchy and crispy on the outside with a soft, creamy center.

Equally rewarding were a velvety cauliflower soup with a dollop of curried cream and a plate of grilled baby artichokes, spiked with the smokiness of chipotle peppers and set atop a bed of earthy gigante beans and a tomato and hazelnut salsa. In both dishes, the flavors were impressively complex, but never self-consciously so.

Generously portioned entrées, for the most part, followed a similar tune. Rhythmically, servers brought them to the table, like clockwork, no more than five minutes after we’d finished our first courses. I became enamored with a warm chanterelle and leek soufflé accompanied by tender and sweet roasted cauliflower, celery root and wilted spinach richened by crème fraîche. And a breaded and fried chicken breast was elevated by a light side of chickpeas and cipollini onions in a chile-oil-spiced broccolini ragoût.

A few dishes, however, seemed to have been prepared by a heavy hand. Pan-fried sole, for instance, was overwhelmed by the addition of sweet currants and an even sweeter onion relish. And a perfectly serviceable (if somewhat uninteresting) pork chop topped with a “dry salsa” of breadcrumbs and rosemary was made less serviceable by salty “green” polenta studded with broccolini.

Yet any complaints I might have had, to my astonishment, always seemed insignificant by the time I’d moved on to a chocolate panna cotta with a deep red sauce of amarena cherries.

Such are a restaurant’s many uses of enchantment.