The Lovely Hula Hands Metamorphosis, from Pepto-Bismol Pink to Shades of Children’s Aspirin Orange

What was the first really successful restaurant to be located along the “rejuvenated” Mississippi strip? I wasn’t really an initiate at the beginning, but surely one of the first had to be Lovely Hula Hands, which technically in those days wasn’t even on Mississippi, it was on Cook just a little leap and bound off the far south end of the Mississippi strip. In the early days, the original Lovely Hula Hands was a place that those ‘freeway people” were always asking about. IMG_0101.JPGYou know those “freeway people”, the ones who are constantly stuck in the gridlock of I-5 on the Portland side of the Columbia, who suddenly look around and start noticing things besides the car in front of them that barely moves, things like that strange little bright pink house on the east side of the freeway just north of the Fremont Bridge, or that blazing holiday house that you can see for miles, located right off of Interstate (The Queen Anne Victorian Mansion on N. McClennan.) You have to be pretty eye catching for those “freeway people” to notice you.

But notice that bright pink house they did, and that was the first I had heard of Lovely Hula Hands, in those beginning days of 2003. I found the name confusing though (I’m sure I was the first one ever, or since,) and as I’m not an I-5 gridlock traveler, wasn’t familiar with the house and thought it was some kind of Hawaiian take-out shack or something. I did know it was reputedly tiny and pink though, with decent food and a big line up to get in. I was sure it was one of those places I would love to have lunch, but of course it was never open at lunchtime, none of the places I really want to eat lunch at serve lunch (you cruel restautanteers!)

IMG_0103.JPGAnyway, by going practically at their 5:00 opening time, which was what was necessary to get into the original Lovely Hula Hands (from here out, largely referred to as LHH,) I was able to actually squeeze into the place for a dinner around three years ago. In the bathroom were photos showing how the owners had lovingly rehabilitated an old dilapidated turn of the century house into their quaint little restaurant. A sweet labor on their part, and while the place was certainly cute, it was a bit too Aunt Edna’s parlour for my tastes, I’m not really an overly big fan of Pepto-Bismol pink when used both inside and outside, and everywhere else. Plus, I think there might have been some flowery wallpaper in places, and I just don’t handle wallpaper well, especially light wallpaper, so that made me a tad un-easy. But it certainly was not unpleasant in any way though, I just wouldn’t want to live there, which is always a sign that I like a restaurant’s decor, I think of sneaking in late at night and setting up residence.

I also remember that about five minutes after my group of five or so sat down, the place was already packed, with a long line of people lined up dying to get in, so I felt lucky we had made it by the skin of our teeth. I remember glancing at the menu and thinking all the prices were about $5 too high, but I always think this about all the places on Mississippi, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned countless times. Back then LHH still had its fusion thing going, and many of the dishes seemed to have Asian or Polynesian touches, things that don’t usually thrill me in fusion cooking. I don’t really remember what anyone else had, but I remember I had a Tululah’s Bathwater cocktail that wasn’t bad, and some flatiron steak thing with Asian touches which was one of their signature dishes. Everything was okay, but not tasty or dynamic enough to put it on my radar as some place I just had to go back to ASAP, especially with all the hoarding masses and difficulties getting in.

I heard early in 2007 that Lovely Hula Hands was planning on moving, and was rehabbing a somewhat larger building in the thick of Mississippi’s dining row. It was impressive to me to read that they could afford to do this, redo an entire building, and made me believe their success had been continuing during the years I had not returned there. Late last summer, as Pam and I were strolling along Mississippi before our first Toro Bravo dinner, we had made it a point to locate the new LHH space, and were impressed how nicely the building had been re-done, even the Lovely Hula Hands name being incorporated into the brick and mortar facade of the lovely old storefront, above the front door. IMG_0118.JPGAlthough it wasn’t even dark out, the place emitted a warm and cosy glow, much more on my interior decorating wavelength than the former frillified LHH could ever manage to be. I suppose the truth is, while Pepto-Bismol pink is a color that when overdone bores but nonetheless antagonizes me, rich children’s aspirin orange is a color I find inspiring yet soothing when used properly. And if there is anything the new LHH’s is, it’s orangey!

I had also heard that the new LHH had some sort of semi-reservation system for larger parties, that the vision of the menu had changed, and that the quality had ratcheting upwards in the new digs, so off our group of eight (all they could really squeeze in) went for the first RR dinner of February 2008. IMG_0104.JPGAs is common with these small but exceedingly popular places who don’t take reservations as a general rule, getting a big table was rather nerve wracking. I had called about eight days in advance to snag a table, but was told that I was calling too early, that what I needed to do was to call at 4:00 on the day I wanted the table, and as long as our group agreed to be there by 6:00 (no reservations after 6:00,) we would probably get the big table we needed. Otherwise we would be divided up. Now as many of you know, it goes against my somewhat OCD oriented nature to just leave things hanging like this (that’s why I don’t try to take more large groups to NO RESERVATION Toro Bravo,) and I had many anxious moments worrying whether everyone would show up and find out I really didn’t have a table. I finally reached somewhat at LHH about 4:30 Friday though, and was told that as long as we were there by 6:00, the table would be ours, which made me feel much better, especially as I anticipated an early arriving crowd on this evening (and was in no way disappointed.)

Driving up around 5:30, I could see our ultimate queen of the early arrivals, Adele, positioned by the front window laying claim to the one large table in the LHH dining room. It was so nice to actually be able to park right across from a restaurant for a change, one of the nice things about LHH being one block north of most of the Mississippi hotspots. Making the decision to join Adele, and forgo our stroll up and down Mississippi until later (always like to see any new places that have sprung up,) Pam and I proceeded inside to check out LHH’s orange wonderfulness. IMG_0105.JPGWe slid ourselves along the window bench next to Adele, who was at this point enjoying a glass of champagne and some of the house bread, which you actually have to pay for, but that’s okay, as it’s quite delicious. Soon we were joined by Pat and Regis, Glenda, Brian, and around 6:00, our newcomer, Lisa. Prior to Lisa showing up, one of our new friends from the disaster that was Eleini’s, Desiree, arrived with her husband, wanting to know if I had gotten her RSVP. Unfortunately, for the first time since RR began, I had not received someone’s positive RSVP, which sucked. Luckily, although things were getting busy, there was still a table for two left across the room, so although we did not have the pleasure of Desiree’s company on this evening, she and her husband were able to enjoy a meal at LHH, and I will include some of her comments a bit later in this exodus of excess.

Before Lisa arrived, several of us had ordered various libations. Regis, in his usual in vain search for RR beer he likes, seemed to strike out once again with a Black Hawk Amber Ale from the Mendicino Brewing Company (although he did manage to choke two down.) As per usual, dining with such fancy people, several glasses of red wine were ordered, especially Cotes du Rhones, and while the size of the pours were applauded, Adele found her vino disarmingly chilled, seemingly due to the fact that the glass was exceedingly cold, and once the glass and wine warmed up, she was quite happy with its ambiance. Brian had decided on an Old Fashioned, which obviously needs no description (especially since I don’t know what’s actually in the cotton pickin’ thing, except perhaps for some yucky whiskey type swill.) IMG_0102.JPGI had mentioned Tululah’s Bathwater to Pam, a pretty pink concoction with a lime slice floating in it, and she enjoyed the mixture of pomegranite molasses, Sauza tequilla, fresh lime and sugar enough to swill two (oh, that Pam and her tequilla.) Pat decided to throw all restraint to the wind, and had the Bee’s Knees, which was described as Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, honey, fresh lemon, and soda water. Having seen the word Cointreau in the description (an expensive favorite of mine,) I selected a Pegu Club Cocktail, which also had Bombay Shapphire, fresh lime, sugar and bitters. It wasn’t bad, but not my favorite drink ever, especially as I was never quite sure what the weird little discolored dirty puddle was floating in the very center, although I’m pretty sure it was part of the recipe (bitter’s maybe,) and not a drip from the ceiling or anything scary of that nature. Where, oh where, was our friend Mr. Dillenburg on this evening though, as this was the first time I’ve even seen a “Rusty Nail” among the featured cocktails.

As the bread eating had been pretty much at the north end of the table thanks to Adele’s generosity, two more orders of the bread, a lovely house made rosemary focaccia with terra madre (???) olive oil were ordered mid and south table. Although focaccia seems to be something whose popularity largely came and went in these parts between five and ten years ago, this focaccia was a revelation. Warm and dripping the fancy olive oil, this focaccia was tender inside, crunchy outside, and completely devour worthy. Newcomer Lisa remarked, “this is the best focaccia I’ve ever had,” and I would probably have to agree with her, although a tad oil laden (I managed to destroy my menu with its greasiness, but I enjoyed its newness before I turned it into an oil slick,) the texture of the bread was fantastic.

IMG_0119.JPGAs I sort of alluded to its orangee wonderfulness, but didn’t really comment otherwise, I should probably say a few more things about the new LHH space. First of all, it’s still too small, and there was a packed mass of sardines trying to get in from about 6:30 on. The building has a second floor, which looks to be habitable, so I don’t know if LHH ever uses that space for dining, cocktails, storage or what, but if their popularity continues, perhaps someday they will be able to expand their dining space. I saw in their website that they have a nice patio in the summer, so I’m sure that helps with the crunch during more hospitable months. Besides the restaurant being various shades of sherbet and other non-alarming oranges, it features a beautiful wood floor recycled from a barn (the waitress was very forthcoming with info on the space when we were leaving,) vintage light fixtures, mix and match old farmhouse artwork, fresh flowers, and a cozy little bar tucked in the back corner. A sweet space for a meal, and certainly a place which has benefited from having the Rebuilding Center just a few blocks down the road. Upon arrival I could tell Regis was smitten, as he said it reminded him of his favorite little restaurant when Pat and Regis lived in Brussels (which started him and Adele on a whirlwind conversation about many Belgian wonders. I so love the continental nature of our RR bunch, and the wonderful experiences they have had.)

As it happens, our new member Lisa has been quite the world traveler, having visited 22 countries (I stole that from her website,) and speaking several languages, some rather obscure it seems. While we were waiting for our starter to appear she told us about her struggles as the head of two non-profits, as a graduate student in administration (I think,) and as someone taking classes in belly dancing and fencing at the same time. She could only stay with us for about 2/3rd of our time at LHH, but is it any wonder with so many other things on her plate? (Ha ha, I made a dining funny.)

IMG_0108.JPGSeveral of us decided we wanted to try starters beside the bread, so a butter lettuce salad, two “arugula and endive salads with dates, parmesan, and almonds” (I had one of those, really good,) and a “cracked dungeness crab with paprika butter” ($11,) were selected. I had been eyeballing that crab, as well as Pam, but with an entree coming that cost $26 dollars, I just could not force myself to splurge to that extent. You just don’t see that many non-seafood specialty restaurants in Portland serve whole crab in the shell (in this case, 1/2 a crab,) and it seemed a wonderful idea. IMG_0107.JPGBrian had a more modestly price pasta entree and did splurge on the crab, and said it was really good, and shared a bite with Pam as well, which she thought extremely kind of him (after all, it’s crab. That’s almost like sharing one’s lobster around these parts.)

Although sometimes people come to the dinners having selected something in advance from the menu on the internet, on this night, multiple peeps seemed to be having a rough time choosing between several items. I heard Pam say she wanted almost everything, and Pat and Glenda seemed rather undecided until the waitress was making her approach. IMG_0110.JPGSomewhat surprisingly, Adele, our Master Chef, seemed firm in her decision on this evening to have a burger, something I myself had contemplated before I saw the other beef option (Just call me predictable.) LHH describes their burger as 1/3 lb ground Cascade Natural Chuck with chili mayonnaise, caramelized onions, and other additional items you could purchase like cheese, $9 (for the burger, not the cheese, you goof.) You also had your choice of salad or fresh cut fries. Obviously, whatever Adele had was spreading, as Regis, sitting right next to her, also had a burger. Adele punished herself for eating the focaccia earlier by sentencing herself to salad instead or fries, no chili mayo, and leaving her bun untouched. She did enjoy the meat though, she said the flavor was amazing. I didn’t really hear any complaints from Regis either, selecting fries with his burger, and managing to stuff the gigantic homemade bun into his mouth with total success. Good effort, Regis.

Pat and Brian were also on similar wavelengths (although not sitting next to one another,) both deciding to go with the “spaghetti with shrimp, garlic, chilies, and toasted bread crumbs.” IMG_0113.JPGIt was a nice large portion, and looked very tasty. Both said it was really good, if a tiny bit spicy because of those chilies, and Brian said the toasted bread crumbs were a really nice touch. Pam, our Queen of the Porcine, not surprisingly had the “Carlton Farms Pork Shoulder braised with red wine and prunes, with root vegetables and white polenta.” Pam really does adore pork, and orders it almost any time she can, and she adored this preparation. I myself had a bite, and it reminded me of some of my favorite pork recipes, as I always think pork goes really well with stewed sweet fruits like prunes, apricots, and figs.IMG_0112.JPG

Once again. just like at The Country Cat, Glenda and I both heard the call of the ribeye. The menu’s description mentioned a “Grilled Strawberry Mountain Ribeye with kale au gratin and cannellini beans.: The ribeye, although prepared in an exceedingly plain fashion, had wonderful rich beef rib flavor, and didn’t need a fancy sauce to make it delicious. My only complaint, the same as at The Country Cat, the meat was a bit overcooked for rare. Although a very healthy portion, the steak was only about 3/4 inch thick, so it’s not surprising a quick cooking cut like a ribeye gets easily overdone at restaurants. But nonetheless, I’m kind of a stickler when it comes to rare steak, and I would have enjoyed it even more had it been a bit redder inside, as it was certainly approaching a pinkish hue. This really is a relatively minor complaint, but I suppose when I spend $26 on an entree, I want it perfect, at least if it’s beef. The oversized locally grown cannellini beans seemed fascinating to several people at the table, and Glenda was amazed by the lovely flavor of the braised kale au gratin. This must be a local trend in dining right now, beef and unusual braised greens, as the last two times I have had ribeyes in restaurants, they came with greens, and they are always placed under the meat.IMG_0109.JPG

As you might remember, I mentioned earlier that we were actually a party of 10, but two of us could not fit at the table and sat elsewhere in the restaurant. Upon inquiring, Desiree kindly sent me some remarks about what she and her husband thought of their meal and experience at Lovely Hula Hands. Here’s basically what she had to say …

The food was wonderful. Service good too. My husband had the Ribeye, the steak itself was just grilled, no special sauce or anything but the beans and kale au gratin were wonderful. I had the swordfish with cous cous and the best cauliflower I have ever tasted. And to say the cauliflower tasted wonderful seems strange, since it is one of the most bland veggies out there, in my opinion. I also had the butter lettuce starter, very tasty and my husband had the sausage lentil soup, which he enjoyed, as well. For dessert I had the Chocolate Banana beignets with coffee ice cream. It was sooooo good I could have just ate it all night.

Thanks so much Desiree, you didn’t get to sit with us, but you were still kind enough to send comments, which I always appreciate so much. (Four less sentences to type!!!)

I was your basic bloated whale after my extensive steak, so couldn’t handle any dessert on this evening, but Glenda, who I think took some home, and Pat and Regis both managed to tackle some dessert (I think our friend Regis might be a major dessert tackler… a person after my own heart, thanks for sharing him with us, Pat.) IMG_0115.JPGBoth parties decided the “Blood Orange Upside Down Cake with Creme Fraiche” sounded appealing (LHH only had three desserts,) and I certainly heard no ill remarks about this pastry from anyone, just your usual uuummms and grunts (oh sorry, those are my noises, and that’s usually just when I have the initial glass of water (Not counting that awful rice paddy swill at Pok Pok.))

So, in case you can’t tell by my lack of things to rip to shreds, and the fact that this review is only 50 pages long, opposed to the usual 200 pages long, this was a very successful night of RR dining. Everyone seemed enamored with the space, ingratiated by the sweet waitress and other table helpers, and basically loved the food. (The only complaint I really heard all night was that some people found the wooden bench on the window side of the table butt-numbing.) With cocktails, starters, and entrees, the bill at LHH’s, for eight people, was $308, opposed to the over $500 horror show for ten people at Eleni’s (of course, people needed a lot more liquor to make it through THAT meal.) At LHH the food was delivered promptly, on our schedule, with a smile, and tasted excellent. The waitress even said we were a really nice group (now how often do WE hear THAT?,) and asked if they could keep one of our “Dine Don’t Dash” slips, as they liked the idea.

On the way out, I stopped into the restroom (very cute and homey, I wanted to snap some photos, but that was too gauche even for moi,) and the waitress was showing Pam some of the artifacts on the walls, including something having to do with the song “Lovely Hula Hands”, (which is where the restaurant gets its name,) and telling her about the special recycled floor and other touches. That’s one of the things that’s extra nice about Lovely Hula Hands, the whole building seems a labor of love. If you go to their website, you can see a few photos detailing what an extensive rehab they did on this building, taking it down to the studs and then creating a wonderful new, but still historically feasible dining space. Everyone seemed pretty happy when they left this dinner, it was such a nice contrast to what we experienced two weeks ago, and experiencing a happy staff in a lovely, intimate little eatery which serves great food is hard not to enjoy. Since their move, the physical size of Lovely Hula Hands has (so far) increased only marginally, but the quality of everything else has increased by leaps and bounds. This was certainly one of Restaurant Roulette’s most crowd pleasing dinners, but unfortunately, really hard for me to make fun of.