Hullaballoo’s magic formula keeps on winning.
Thursday, March 4, 2004
A pink tweed vintage Chanel jacket and faded old Earl Jeans. A pair of Christian Louboutin’s so insanely high, even a vertically challenged woman like me can be 5' 9". Well, all right, 5' 8". That’s how Hullaballoo feels on the inside: a little bit classic beauty, a whole lot comfy chic, and just enough sass to keep the whole thing wickedly cool. And that’s all before dinner even arrives.
My love affair with Hullaballoo began in a sort of corny way. A guy I used to date—or maybe we were married, whatever—spent Valentine’s Day there a couple of years back. The experience was so sublime, we were back within a week. It’s been my favorite since.
Perfectly manicured tables with stark white linens are silhouetted in dim lighting, and the entire place seems to pulse mildly from the life going on in the quiet charm of Oldtown. It all manages to create a deeply intimate atmosphere that practically begs to be forgotten, to be your background, just existing in your presence instead of the other way around.
A couple of seating areas near the bar have neither the linens nor the hum. The pulse there is more a rhythmic thump of cocktails being shaken, after-work deals being stirred, and muted games on the tele for good measure.
This particular night, my friend and I took a table near the window in the front of the restaurant looking out onto the damp cobblestones of Main. A tea light flickered in the window.
Part of the appeal of the place is the attentiveness of the staff. As if it wasn’t enough that they have a culinary genius in the kitchen in the person of co-owner and Executive Chef Todd Fisher, charismatic Bill Cascio is in charge of the front of the store. He handles that end with a contagious smile, a trace of humility, and plenty of stops at guests’ tables that convey a sense of, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m all about you for the next hour or two.” It’s easy to feel that he means it.
No menu perusal time at Hullaballoo’s would be complete without a cocktail from the expert hands of two of their regular bartenders, Lori or Tom. That night, I caught a glimpse of Lori behind the bar. She makes the best Cosmo this side of the Pacific, so natch that’s what I ordered, with Stoli and a squeeze of extra lime.
Admittedly, I’ve fallen into a sort of habitual ordering when I’m there. I usually go with penne pasta. It’s a feast of al dente pasta tossed with tender chunks of chicken and artichokes, then dotted with dried tomatoes, a little sage, and topped with Romano cheese ($13.95). The dish is addicting, but this time I branched out to try the sand dabs ($18.95) and jumped back to habit for an iceberg salad ($5.95).
Something’s going on with the salad there. At the end of the day, it’s just an iceberg wedge with red onions, tomatoes, radishes (okay, I pick those off) and a crumbly bleu cheese dressing. Somehow, though, it ends up tossing itself to the front of the class. The bleu cheese is spicy, hot even, and balances beautifully with the bite of the red onions and the oh-so-fresh lettuce. The rational me keeps saying it’s just a salad. And yet, it’s anything but.
I switched to a glass of Grand Archer Chardonnay ($6.75) just as my sand dabs came. The plate was beautiful, with two crisp slabs of fish suspended on a bed of lobster whipped potatoes and encircled by arugula, charred tomatoes and a drizzle of vinaigrette. I wasn’t sure where to begin, and I even felt a little guilty putting a fork into the art. But I did. And I’d do it again. Somehow, though cooked to a golden brown on the outside, the mild white fish wasn’t the least bit affected on the inside. It was moist and flaky, virtually coddled by the exterior.
My friend went with Jo-Jo’s Fried Chicken ($15.95). Forget what you knew about fried chicken. This dish is two huge breasts resting on a heap of whipped potatoes and a side of the sweetest corn succotash you’ve ever tasted.
Kids at an adjacent table reminded me why this is a great place for families—the kids’ menu makes it easy for parents to say, “Whatever you want.” Actual meals like steak, fish, and chicken are all there. Someone was smart enough to remember kids are reading the menu, so they keep it fun, giving the dishes names like “Jammin’ Salmon” and “Snake and Potatoes,” even “A side of the green stuff.”
That’s what sets Hullaballoo apart from many other fine dining places around the county: It’s a whole lot of casual fun and yet still manages to remain true to the discriminating diner who expects every bit of what they’re paying for.
I stood to put my coat on, chatting with a couple at a nearby table about their pile of ribs, and I heard a call behind me: “See you next time, Bill.” Cascio raised an arm and flashed the patron a grin over the honey colored bar now bustling and humming with a whole mess of beautiful people just soaking up the atmosphere. It can be that different from room to room. And I couldn’t help but smile.
I don’t know how many, if any, of those patrons were decked in labels or sky-high heels—I know I wasn’t that night. It wouldn’t matter anyway. It just feels that good.