Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lula's Cafe

I had a lovely meal at Lula, a restaurant in Logan Square, Chicago. I called ahead to ask about their Monday Night Farm Dinner, sadly it was gluten filled, but they assured me that there were other menu options that were or could be made gluten-free.

From the outside, Lula Cafe did not look like much sandwiched between a diner and apartment buildings. But the modest exterior gave way to a cozy, candlelit interior with a beautiful bar that lead down the narrow hall towards the dining room.

I started the night with a Malbec rose; I have never seen one before and thought it was worth a try. It was clean, slightly crisp, but it felt like something that was better left to warmer months.

The cheese plate appetizer came with far too much bread (not just because I could not eat it) there were two small cheese offerings a bloomy rind Italian cheese and some Great Hill Blue from Wisconsin plus brandied cherries, candied walnuts, preserves, micro greens, a drizzle of honey, flat bread crisps plus a small side plate of 4 slices of bread... it was bread overkill.
The beet and blood orange salad was a surprise. Layers of shaved fennel, serrano ham, arugula, golden and garnet beets, and supremes of blood oranges were dressed table side with black olive infused honey. The plate was also garnished with dried bits of black olives that provided a light crunch and salt that helped balance the plate.

The main dishes offered generous portions of protein paired with interesting sides. The whitefish came lightly crusted atop stinging nettles and black trumpet mushrooms and fried fingerling potatoes. I honestly thought the dots of chile oil around the plate would be overwhelming, but they added a pleasant and balanced heat to the dish. (I have never had stinging nettles before and they were a little fuzzy feeling, but soft, tender and paired well with the mushrooms.)
The flank steak, served medium rare over a bed of chickpeas and marrow-poached baby turnips had at least one or two hidden spices, beyond the cilantro listed, that made me keep going back for another bite. The meat stood out with its crisp, perfectly seasoned exterior that gave way to a tender interior, making me think that it was bathed in some clarified butter. The chickpeas were firm, but not undercooked, but the turnips were the real treat. Soft, bite sized roots had me digging through the chickpeas and green onions to find one more bite.

There was a comfortable and needed lull between courses, with casually dressed servers who knew how to read a table and their clientele.

The meal ended with the apricot milkshake and caramel panna cotta. The toasted rice and almond milkshake was thick but not overly sweet. (I passed on the accompanying cookies)
There was some confusion about the oatmeal praline topping on the panna cotta, but it was quickly resolved and a new dessert was sent out. If it would have been doable, I would have lapped the cajeta off the plate that accompanied the barely sweet goats milk panna cotta. The quince offered a texture contrast, nice, but not necessary. The salty and tangy curls of a hard goats milk cheese were cute but appropriate since the panna cotta itself did not have the characteristicly metallic or lemony hits of most goats milk products. The cajeta (similar to dulce de leche) was sweet and luscious and even with such a filling meal, I wanted more of it.

Lula is good and often times sometimes great local cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. I look forward to a reason to visit both it and Chicago again.

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