Attack of the Wallet-Savers 

Great Restaurant Fails to Break Your Bank

Lovely Hula Hands

938 N. Cook (at Mississippi)

445-9910

Am I just getting older and richer, or is the gap between typically broke young Portlanders and fine eating establishments starting to close? Recent openings like the extremely popular Farm Cafe, the Vietnamese Green Papaya, and Surabuya--an innovative Hawthorne-dwelling Indonesian restaurant--reflect a growing trend of new restaurants devoted to providing a classy dining experience and great food without breaking your bank. Now add the spanking new Lovely Hula Hands to the mix, and it appears a Golden Age of wallet-friendly excellence is fast approaching.

Lovely Hula Hands has the look and feel of a family's dining room. It's quite small, located in a quaint pink house off Mississippi, and decorated with various thrift store knickknacks. It avoids the realm of kitsch, however, with sleek tables and romantic lighting. The resulting ambience is simultaneously elegant and homey.

With a relatively small selection of gourmet-sounding appetizers, salads, soups, and entrees, LHH's menu--including its layout, choice of font, and message at the bottom proclaiming the use of local, organic produce and free-range chicken--resembles the Farm Cafe's. But there the similarities end, as the contents therein have a flavor and style distinctly their own.

My dining partner and I began with the shrimp satay appetizer and Tom Ka-Vegetable Coconut Curry soup. It's hard to ruin grilled shrimp if it's fresh, and LHH stuck to the basics, with three skewers, a light, almost undetectable marinade, and a gentle bed of jasmine rice. The addictive, creamy, Thai-influenced soup also came with a pile of rice, which combined with its generous glut of cauliflower, carrot, and other vegetables, made it almost a meal in itself.

We then delved into LHH's drinks menu, which is extensive and impressive. Cold drinks like the Japanese Slipper with sauza, midori, and fresh lime juice, and the Bee's Knee's, made with rum, cointreau, and honey, are tantalizing, but where they really seduce the thirsty Portlander on a cold and clammy night is with their hot drink options. I had a Hot Buttered Rum that wrapped a warm, frothy, sugary scarf around my heart.

For an entree, I chose the Salmon Katsu, a highly creative dish including breaded salmon fingers, more rice, crunchy asparagus, and a slightly sweet soy dipping sauce. I've never seen salmon prepared like that before, like crunchy mozzarella sticks.

My companion ordered the Cuban Pumpkin Rice, a colorful and tasty vegan dish with a creamy coconut sauce, fried plantains, green beans, and of course Jasmine rice. Other entree options include a Korean barbecued beef, various burgers, chicken and mashed potatoes in an onion marsala sauce, and a ribeye steak. It's an eclectic and appealing lineup, if not exactly vegan friendly (although the menu does note vegan dishes). But then again, not every new addition to the Golden Age of progressive restaurants is required to have a perfect balance of meat and meatlessness. As I see it, fine dining, exquisite culinary craftsmanship, and reasonable prices are more than enough.

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