It’s all out in the open at this hospitable spot on Munjoy Hill.
On a cold February morning, I stand in front of Lolita’s “box of fire” with owners Stella and Guy Hernandez. The bricks of the wood-fired open grill are still warm from the night before as chef de cuisine Kimmo Meronen piles in logs, lights another fire, and begins to fan the flames. We warm up quickly, and all agree that this spot at the end of the zinc bar is a pretty good place for a chat. As we talk, vendors come and go with wine and produce, Guy is on the phone trying to find a repairman for the Garland stove, and Meronen is prepping for dinner. “By the time customers show up late afternoon, we’ve already put in eight hours,” says Stella. “But at the end of the night, we want guests to walk away not thinking about how we pulled it off. We want it to look easy to them, and that’s something we all agreed on from the start.”
The Hernandezes are veteran Portland restaurateurs who opened Lolita with partner Neil Reiter in the spring of 2014, just a few doors down from the couple’s previous restaurant, Bar Lola, a Munjoy Hill fixture for seven years. “Cooking is the easy part,” says Guy. “We want everyone to have the best experience, no matter how big or small their order. It’s not about us. It’s about the guests.” Stella, who runs the front of the house, concurs. “We hire people with an innate sense of hospitality,” she says. “I can teach you how to carry a plate, but I can’t teach you how to treat a guest. That’s an intuitive thing.” Stella possesses the hospitality gene herself, and uses it in all aspects of running Lolita. “You can come to Lolita and interact with us. Talk to Kimmo and Guy in the open kitchen, or ignore us and just pay attention to those at your table,” she says. “We’ll meet you where you are, with whatever kind of experience you want to have,” adds Guy.
Stella uses this practice especially when it comes to wine. “I’m not here to tell you how much I know about wine,” she says. “I love wine and I can answer your questions, but it’s more about having a conversation and finding out what the guest likes.” The walls of Lolita are lined with wine bottles, as you would see in a wine shop. It’s okay to get out of your seat and look around. The wines are mostly from small producers, chosen to complement the Mediterranean-inspired dishes. “Wine and food are equally important here,” says Stella. “They’re both part of our name. Vinoteca translates to ‘wine collection’ and asador is ‘wood-fired cooking.’” The bar and dining space are afforded equal billing, with the room-length bar running parallel to a row of rustic wooden tables along the wall. “You can have the same experience in either place,” Stella says.
A few nights later, I have the opportunity to dine at Lolita. In the far corner, a young couple is deep in quiet conversation, while at the almost-full bar, friends are sharing plates of charcuterie, wine, and beer. Our server, Jenn Rothbart, enthusiastically explains the menu, which categorizes dishes by size. I’m glad to see so many plates suitable for sharing because everything sounds tempting and I want to taste it all. But first, wine. My companion is happy to see an albariño on the list of wines by the glass. It’s a Spanish white wine, bright and zesty, that goes particularly well with seafood and spicy dishes. I choose a French pinot noir, warm and full of rich berry flavor, a fine complement to foods and sauces that are higher in acidity. It holds up well to a thick slice of toast topped with garlicky rapini, anchovy, and piquant Calabrian peppers. We order more than necessary because it’s all so enticing, and each plate is as delicious as we’d hoped. Grilled cauliflower is cooked perfectly with a little char, and it’s wonderful dipped in smoky harissa labneh. Ricotta gnocchi is velvety and light, with earthy pan-roasted mushrooms and a touch of cream. A bowl of wood-roasted clams is simply executed, but highly flavorful. It’s difficult to pinpoint a favorite, but if forced to choose, it’s the torchio bathed in ‘nduja, a peppery, spreadable salami. The unassuming bowl of twisted pasta is cooked properly al dente and studded with peas. One delicious bite leads to another and before we know it, the bowl is sadly empty. “This is a dish that would incite riots if it was to be taken off the menu,” Stella tells me.
While we dine, Stella posts herself at the end of the bar, close to the kitchen, where her husband and Meronen move between the now-repaired Garland stove and the “box of fire,” with saute pans and roasting trays. From here, she keeps an eye on everything, anticipating needs and lending a hand as necessary. She jokes with the staff, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company. “This is who are,” she says. “It’s all out in the open. There are no tricks.”