Friday September 27, 2013 | 07:15 AM

It’s been a whirlwind year for Portland’s dining world witnessing a bevy of new restaurants opening to great acclaim.  With million-dollar budgets spent on décor and ambiance, these new dining halls are resolutely the new wave--where bigger is better.  Just witness Hugo’s, Boone’s Outliers, In’ Finiti and before that Eventide and theMiyake restaurant group as the quintessential norm.

Yet the core of the city’s dining citadels is still very much in demand.  The old names and the established newcomers have not been left in the dust.  And quite by chance a few nights ago I found myself at such a place when I sauntered in to the highly regarded Bar Lola.

At 100 Congress Street Bar Lola is a part of the restaurant row atop Munjoy Hill that includes the Blue Spoon and the Front Room

A fixture on Munjoy Hill since 2006, chef and co-owner Guy Hernandez along with his wife, Stella, have fashioned an intimate dining establishment out of a homely storefront.  Over the years it has been modestly upgraded in décor and service.  Still, it’s less slick than cozy but manages to eke out a look of restrained stylishness.

There's a small entry way for diners to wait for a table

We found ourselves serendipitously in a full house without a reservation.  The waitress-hostess kindly told us that there would be a table in about 15 minutes.  The other option was to eat at the bar, which we decided to try. 

The small dining room hosts a commodious grouping of banquettes, two-tops and larger tables

That is until we settled in.  The seats on the high-back bar stools were so low as to render our shoulders nearly at bar level.  We decided to wait for a table and order cocktails at the bar. 

Service there, however, was not swift or gracious.  Short of belting out attention-getting guffaws, we couldn’t get our bartender to look our way.  Finally he saddled up to us eye-to-eye and took our order: a vodka martini for my friend and a vodka rocks for me.

I watched him humorlessly measure out the vodka using one of those 2-ounce jiggers, which he poured into the empty glass and then added the ice.  What arrived was a cocktail no fuller than a thimble.  My friend’s drink, however,  was well made with a pour that reached the top of the martini glass.

There are two schools of thought in the bartending world on how to mix a drink.  Some mixologists (don’t you just love that term?) measure precisely while others eyeball it and pour generously.  At $8 to $12 a pop, a short drink is plainly short shrift.

I’ve always thought of Bar Lola as an idiosyncratic establishment--a contrivance that is at once hoakey but fine enough to turn out some wickedly good food.  

We were ultimately shown to a table and noticed that there were only two servers working a very busy room.  Fast forward: We finished dinner nearly three hours later because the kitchen was so backed up and the service staff overwhelmed.   Here’s the gist of our  dining adventure.

Our colorfully tattooed waiter attended to us with great fanfare. In fact he was very much a showman, taking great pains to explain what I thought was a very straight-forward menu.  When he finished his soliloquy of menu-speak, complete with guttural rs and sundry flourishes, we were as speechless as mummies.

Very good olive oil is served with excellent crusty bread

This show was certainly wasted on us since we already knew what we wanted.  The menu is simple enough.  It offers a 4-course prix fixe at $36, a 7-course tasting menu at $44 or an a la carte menu, which we chose.

What struck me immediately was the Johnny cake starter with roasted red onions and Maine corn relish.  My friend picked out the duck confit with frisee and tomato mostarda.

A starter course of "socca" pancake with onions and corn relish

As it turned out the kitchen had changed the Johnny cake to a pancake made from chickpeas, otherwise known as “socca.” The onion and corn relish were beautifully rendered atop a crispy, soulful socca--a very happy dish indeed.

The duck confit that my dinner mate ordered was another gem that sparkled within an intense pile of cured duck dipped in an exhilarating mustard sauce.

 

Another starter, duck confit

From the first course list we chose the slow-cooked pork carnitas, with a spicy yogurt dressing.  We shared this dish, devouring it toot de suite, relishing the fragrant pork filling.

Pork carnitas

Second course offerings were mostly salads, which we skipped, and went straight to the third-course entrées.  My friend chose the Parisian-style gnocchi with butter-poached summer vegetables, and I had local North Star lamb served under a dome of mushroom gastrique with herbed polenta.   

The pasta was a colorful rendering of well made gnocchi, light and buoyant, mixed with farm fresh local vegetables--a dish fit for the most ardent vegivore.

 

 A well made dish of gnocchi and local vegetables

My lamb was delicious, especially the mushroom gastrique. There were two chops that were pan roasted. I thought the lamb, however, was tough, something that I’ve noticed before with this farm’s lamb.  Otherwise it was another very well devised offering.

Lamb over polenta with a bracing mushroom gastrique 

For dessert we had an excellent almond torte, a buttery, sweet confection that was a good ending to the preceding drawn-out parade of splendid savory courses.

 

 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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