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Lovely hands guide all facets of this fine dining experience

Taste
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Lovely Hula Hands’ regularly changing menu offers hard-to-choose-from dishes such as this trout, blood orange and avocado salad with mint oil dressing.

All the national attention that Portland's food scene has received from publications such as The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Gourmet has made it harder to select restaurants to show off to out-of-town visitors.

The positive press has raised expectations exponentially. Good food is not enough. Visitors demand the whole package: excellent cocktails and service, a nice wine list and a cool-looking space too.

That's a pretty tall order.

My sister blew into town last week from Southern California. When I asked her what kind of restaurant she was in the mood for, she said: 'You know where to take me, Liz. Atmosphere is really important and I want good food and drinks.'

Oh boy.

I appreciate the restaurant scene in Portland as much as anyone. But the truth is, there aren't that many places that offer it all.

One restaurant has become my go-to spot for taking out-of-towners: Lovely Hula Hands (4057 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-445-9910, www.lovelyhulahands.com). It qualifies as a quadruple threat with its setting, drinks, service and food.

From the outside, the restaurant is a plain brick box of a building. Inside, it's old-fashioned looking - feminine without being too froufrou; the lighting is muted and romantic.

I like sitting on the main floor, next to the tiny bar, but the small dining room upstairs is cozy, too. And, once warm weather returns, the restaurant's festive split-level, courtyard patio will open again out back.

Make sure to try a cocktail from the restaurant's terrific list. I've typically chosen the sweet and sticky Lemondrop. But after tasting the Beauty Mark, made with Maker's Mark bourbon, fresh orange juice and sour cherries, I'll order it next time.

Or maybe I'll make that a Pegu Club cocktail with Bombay Sapphire gin, Cointreau, fresh lime and bitters. And, the bartenders make a perfect Tom Collins with fresh lemon juice, sugar, soda water and, of course, gin. They use Tanqueray.

Obviously, they make a bunch of terrific cocktails, which means you have another excuse to visit often so that you can sample them all. Just don't try too many in one night. They're strong. And be prepared to take a cab home.

Service at Lovely Hula Hands is just right. The servers are friendly but unobtrusive. They visit the table often enough but don't force themselves into the conversation either. You'll get what you want when you want it.

Even if the setting, drinks and service weren't so great, I'd still visit often because the food on the seasonal, regularly changing menu is amazing.

Recently I shared a wonderfully simple salad of butter lettuce, Crater Lake blue cheese crumbles, and toasted hazelnuts. Dressed lightly with tangy vinaigrette, it made an excellent beginning to the meal.

Another starter, grilled shrimp with tender artichokes in creamy, deep red romesco sauce was so satisfying, I wanted another order.

But I had to save room for my fabulous hanger steak entree with slightly crunchy fried cardoons and caramelized cauliflower with caper mayo. My sister declared Lovely Hula Hand's buttery halibut served on a colorful bed of cannellini bean, tomato and artichoke ragout, the best halibut she'd ever tasted.

More than anything else, what makes this restaurant the best choice for taking visitors is consistency. Every time I go, the food is great and there's always one item that really blows me away.

A visit to Hula Hands in January rewarded me with one of the best salads I've ever eaten. Thinly sliced, sharp tasting fennel was tossed with small sections of pink grapefruit, meaty green Lucques olives, creamy feta and delicate chervil. The balance of textures and flavors was exquisite.

Save room for dessert, too. These are not the best desserts in town but they are consistently satisfying. Recently, a simple chocolate cake with whipped cream topped with salted almonds was scrumptious.

Since the restaurant moved from a few blocks away into its current space on North Mississippi Avenue in November 2006 and talented Troy MacLarty took over the kitchen, Lovely Hula Hands has only gotten better.

Take your guests and they'll leave convinced that Portland really deserves all the positive press.

One thing to keep in mind though is that waits for tables at Lovely Hula Hands can be long. The restaurant only takes reservations for parties of six or more before 6 p.m. But I've found that if you arrive by 5:30 p.m. any night it's open, the wait isn't bad at all. Plus, they're very nice about serving you a glass of wine or a cocktail while you wait.

Lovely Hula Hands is open for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

• • •

Summer is just around the corner, which means that the popular summer outdoor dinner series, Plate and Pitchfork, is on its way too. The 2008 dinner schedule will be released in early May.

These incredible dinners, held at area farms with food cooked by local chefs paired with regional wines, sell out super quickly.

If you want to make sure you're one of the first to learn about the dinners, visit www.plateandpitchfork.com and sign up to receive e-mails from Plate and Pitchfork. Then, once you receive an e-mail saying the tickets are on sale, act instantly or you'll miss out.

If you want to experience Plate and Pitchfork but you can't spare the moolah, consider volunteering at one of the dinners. Visit the Web site to learn more.