Lolita Vinoteca + Asador
Lolita Vinoteca + Asador’s chef and owner, Guy Fernandez, tends to a cast iron pan full of plump, blistered shishito peppers into the restaurant’s roaring wood oven. He bluntly defines the experience as cooking in a box of fire. “You learn very quickly that you cannot ignore it; turn your back on the flames and things can go very wrong.”
This same unforgiving fire that demands Guy’s attention produces the smoky flavors that permeate most of the menu at Lolita. But without pigeonholing. “To be honest, I’d be happy if Lolita never has a signature dish,” Guy admits, ”but was instead known for a style and approach to cooking that is evident in every item on the menu.”
His wisdom comes from experience. Guy, his wife Stella, and his business partner, Neil Reiter, opened Lolita in the spring of 2014. Months earlier the team closed Bar Lola, a tapas restaurant that they felt had become too limiting, and moved into 90 Congress Street to build a restaurant that had freedom in its menu and atmosphere for both customer and chef. The transformation of the room is breathtaking, too, a deep red covers the walls and there’s a well-balanced mix of both reclaimed wood and eclectic modern touches. The unassuming entrance gives way to a deceptively large space, which was designed by Neil’s wife, Lauren. Extending the length of the zinc bar are industrial-looking metal pipes that double as light fixtures, and anchoring the dining room is the fully open kitchen and, of course, the stunning wood-fired oven.
A plate of briny, garlicky spaghetti with squid ink sauce and lemon zest arrives in front of me. The dish tastes like the ocean because of a liberal addition of bottarga, cured fish roe that is a prized delicacy in Sicily. When I attempt to pinpoint the region of influence in the kitchen, my first inclination was the path of Moorish Conquest, given the multitude of Turkish and Mediterranean flavors. However, Guy credits the trade routes through Venice, and the dizzying juxtaposition of cuisines and flavors that resulted. In simple dishes, like creamy, tangy burrata cheese, he elevates what is already perfect with confit of lemon and a hint of Aleppo chili oil. He takes a classic French steak tartare and imparts extraordinary depth with the addition of an Italian fermented fish sauce called Colatura di Alici.
Other dishes go for all-out comfort. The harissa-spiked lamb meatballs are baked in a skillet with tomato sauce, Aleppo chili, hearty croutons, and a single egg then topped with yogurt that with the addition of ghee becomes more decadent and aromatic. “You can eat this morning, noon, and night,” Guy says.
The caldoso, a style of soupy rice that originated in Spain, Guy describes as too soupy to be a good risotto and not crunchy enough to be a good paella, but where it lies in the middle turns out to be outrageously satisfying. It arrives topped with grilled squid and a spicy ragu of tomatoes, capers, and shallots.
The menu features a full range of cured meats, cheeses, and, for those looking to graze, pots (rillettes, chicken liver mousse, etc.). At the other end of the spectrum is their John Candyesque Porterhouse Bistecca for three, which is served with simple garden greens.
The menu is laid out to accommodate a variety of appetites, and it is available in its entirety daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Stella runs the front of the house and tells me the spirit of the restaurant evolves throughout the day. When they first opened, her goal was to create a comfortable experience for guests whether they are having a full meal, afternoon snacks, or simply imbibing. Speaking of which, the wine program features over 80 labels and each bottle makes perfect sense: from grower Champagnes like Aubry Brut to riveting examples of obscure varietals like Fiano with the Planeta Cometa from Sicily. Tiny producers like Domaine des Hautes de Sanziers from Saumur (whose Chenin Blanc I can personally take credit for becoming available in Maine after I visited the winery in 2011) are incredible values, and yet even the prestige wines like the Rene Rostaings La Landonne Cote Rotie, are still chosen based on their quality for the cost, not just the name. I could honestly go on and on about so much of this list, but you’ll have to go explore for yourself.
As I finish up with a mouthful of chocolate cookies that have been dipped in steamed milk, I observe as the restaurant fills up for the second time that evening. It doesn’t feel rushed, and everyone looks completely at ease. This is the task of a great restaurateur, to execute every element to the point where the customer has no idea of the actual infrastructure that goes into the meal. The aromas drifting from the volcanic oven serve to both comfort hungry patrons as well as to remind the cooks that nature waits for no man, but rewards those who tend the fires with care.