Lovely Hula Hands

THE FOOD When eating out, most diners want food that they can’t or wouldn’t make at home—fancy fare prepared with flourish and verve that they’ve come to believe only a trained chef with a French accent can pull off. But occasionally a chef manages to remind us that the best cooking is often the most accessible. Such a chef may serve food modeled after the sort of meals our mothers and grandmothers might have prepared—with a vegetable and some meat, maybe a grain or a salad to round it out. He makes it with the utmost attention to detail, ensuring that the fingerling potatoes accompanying our braised lamb shoulder are perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper, and rosemary; that the grilled sweet-corn polenta is a soft and creamy foil to the richness of a poached farm egg and an earthy, sweet ratatouille. Sometimes his fare is as simple as a plate of olive-oil- fried and salted padrón peppers and cherry tomatoes, or chunks of watermelon and soft, Israeli feta touched by curls of refreshing mint and a few salty, cured black olives. This is the kind of food that makes us want to go home, turn on our ovens, and pull out our cookbooks—the kind of food that reminds us not only of the pleasures of the table, but also the pleasures of a few simple ingredients and a stove.

hula hands
Image: Kim Nguyen

THE CHEF A graduate of Alice Waters’s acclaimed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, the talented Troy MacLarty began building a name for himself in Portland in 2004 as a wunderkind chef at the now-defunct Family Supper. Once Family Supper shut its doors, MacLarty remained largely under the radar until Lovely Hula Hands snatched him up—a move that probably saved the restaurant from fading into Portland’s culinary background. As he did at his past posts, MacLarty keeps it casual here, plating his food as though he were throwing a dinner party at home. But his impressive dedication to handpicking the freshest ingredients he can find—even occasionally helping farmers grow them for the restaurant—and his ability to spin them into culinary gold elevate what may at first seem like fairly straightforward fare into the realm of the transcendent.

THE SPACE Shabby chic meets N Mississippi Avenue grunge, with a little romance thrown in. Set in a two-story brick building, Lovely Hula Hands possesses a certain Victorian charm in its flowery wallpaper, its candelabras and chandeliers. But the space is far from stodgy—indeed, it’s one of the most inviting dining rooms in town, drawing out-of-towners, culturally savvy retired folk, and the neighborhood’s young, beer-and-a-cigarette crowd (though when dining, members of the last group exhibit an uncanny intuition for choosing the perfect bottle of pinot noir). On a warm night, the patio at Lovely Hula Hands can’t be beat.

THE SERVICE As far as we can tell, the waitstaff here is an all-female entourage, and one that exudes (if we may say so, at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes) a certain maternal instinct toward its customers. If your white wine is too warm, they’ll apologize profusely and bring you the shiniest ice bucket they can find. If your steak isn’t prepared exactly how you like it (a rare event), they’ll whisk it back to the kitchen and make sure the chef gets it right. And while they’ll continually check up on you to make sure you’re satisfied, they know that when eating food as good as this, you’ll appreciate some space in which to enjoy it.