Bar Lola, you had me at hello. Your online menu? I’m salivating before I arrive. A grazer by nature, I’m a big fan of the small-plate trend, and there’s much here I want to try.

The small dining room is arranged well: a small furnished area just inside the entry; the dining area bordered by a drape so no one feels halfway out the door. You haven’t given in to the temptation to add more tables and crowd the entrance.

Kudos, too, for gently informing guests how the menu works. Not a single question — and we ask so many — gets the slightest look of impatience. There’s no concern over our latecomer or how we want to time our multiple orders. Our waiter knows the wines to suggest.

What about the food? Well, it veers close to perfection. (Note to all who hate a gushing critic: now’s the time to bail.)

Two of us have the five-plate prixe-fixe meal ($39 without wine; add $24 for wine pairings), which allows us to choose one from five lists: small (3 bites each), medium, salads, large (think small entrees) and sweet. All can be ordered a la carte instead. Those prices are noted below.

Red radishes — sauteed in duck fat with a bite of duck confit atop warm arugula — dazzle, their crunchy texture melding with moist duck flavor. Sublime. French lentils are beautifully seasoned with fines herbs and topped with slivers of La Quercia prosciutto, made stateside in Iowa. They gratify even my legume-averse companion (both “smalls” are $6). Hello.

In this get-acquainted phase, one of three servers who manage our table tells us that the dessert I pre-ordered doesn’t meet the chef’s standards on this particular night. Would I like to choose another? Of course. Who can quarrel with high standards?

Next come the “mediums,” all $8. Giant Peruvian white beans swim in a smoked paprika soup with an astonishingly rich and hearty flavor, especially considering it’s vegan. A mound of caramelized onions tops a puff pastry pissaladiere, the pizza-like vehicle a tad on the soggy side from its cargo, but it’s hardly a distraction.

Salad of julienned celery root, carrot and apples with a mild curry aioli is fresh and brightly flavored.

A dish of shaved fennel and citrus (grapefruit, blood orange, lemon and lime, the chef explains later) combined with an olive and caper vinaigrette has a pickly and sour taste that we like (each $7).

Why did the chef choose to feature Scottish salmon ($18) rather than the nearer Atlantic variety, which is also farmed, we ask our server? It’s simply a better quality fish, comes the answer from the kitchen. And yes, it’s excellent — thick and moist, cooked to retain a deep pink in the middle and perfectly partnered with shaved brussels sprouts sauteed in bacon.

A bowl of ricotta gnocchi with swiss chard, raisins and pine nuts is a meld of bitter and sweet ($18, as are all “large” items).

A companion’s strip steak with creamed spinach and nutmeg is well-prepared but unexciting, he says, and I agree. But I suspect that’s because it’s a menu item meant to please a hesitant diner more than anything else.

The market fish is cobia from Belize. It’s firm and unflaky, dense enough to be sliced in coin-like sections, beautifully flavored with Meyer lemon and served with couscous. Where did the chef procure it, and is it available to the home cook? Our ever-patient waiter is off to find the answer.

Tonight, every pairing of ingredients, in all categories, is a winner. Portions? Enough to satisfy but not overwhelm. Timing? Not swift, but just what one would expect, considering we are tasting many dishes and the chef needs time to fuss. Presentation? Very attractive, if not high art.

The tables at Bar Lola are arranged fairly close to one another, and if you really listen, you can probably hear a neighbor’s murmurs. (We didn’t, and didn’t.) But somehow the intimate space works, perhaps due to large windows framed by pulled-backed blue curtains, the comfy bar and a half-wall room divider behind which the staff keeps a careful eye on both sides of the house.

The milieu feels elegant and casual at the same time.

On to dessert. The cream puffs, three miniatures to the plate, could use a little more blood orange sabayon. It’s a quibble.

Steamed toffee and date pudding, a dense and sticky-rich square with a toffee crust and sauce, makes us dreamy. (Sweets are $6.)

Two-and-a-half hours fly by. The food transports us, and the expert service never flags.

We notice that very few tables turn over during our stay. Couples and groups linger and converse, apparently as contented as we are. I guess when you’re smitten at hello, it’s hard to say goodbye.


Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.