"'I am of those who like to stay late at the café,' the older waiter said. 'With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.'" The passage from Ernest Hemingway, perhaps better than any other in literature, exemplifies the need for a no-fuss place to meet, eat, drink, talk, read, or simply sit and watch people pass by.
Lulu hopes to encourage a similar camaraderie at the bustling intersection of Main Highway and Commodore Plaza. White letters on the back of the staff's black T-shirts spell out the mission: neighborfood. Plus the place stays open until 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday for "those who do not want to go to bed." Granted, Coconut Grove 2011 isn't exactly the Latin Quarter of the '20s, and conversation emanating from the restaurant's sidewalk tables will likely not be confused with the sort of verbiage exchanged between Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Still, Lulu is a hospitable stop where friends can gather and enjoy themselves over affordable wines and a smart selection of popular bites.
A comparison closer to home would be to GreenStreet Café, located directly across the street. Sylvano and Maida Bignon, both from Paris, have been owners of that spot for about two decades. Last June, the couple rolled out Lulu, a younger, hipper — dare we say artsier? — version of their flagship venue. Lulu's indoor space is lounge-like, with a small bar, flat-screen television screens, and walls splashed with urban-style collage art.
Just about everyone chooses the outdoor seating, which wraps around the corner and encompasses round café tables and low tables bookended by couches. The preference for street-side snacking is likely to change as the heat intensifies. Let's hope the music will change too. If thumping tracks played in Parisian cafes, members of the Lost Generation would have retreated to their respective flats — and The Sun Also Rises might have become The Front Door Also Opens.
The single-page menu is a savvy compilation of 19 small plates, four sandwiches, six salads, five burgers, and a half-dozen entrées. Like its sibling across the way, Lulu emphasizes popular American fare, but it focuses less on traditional family sensibilities and more on the tastes of younger diners.
That focus is especially evident among the starters, which eschew hummus platters and fried calamari in favor of contemporary dishes such as goat cheese croquettes with honey-orange dip; smoky Brussels sprouts with orange sections and balsamic vinegar; and shichimi corn, a cob cut into roughly one-inch cylinders and bursting with butter and the namesake spice mix of chili peppers and other seasonings. Cold, thin flatbread with skirt steak on it was the least successful of our samplings — the bits of meat overpowered by blue cheese.
Retro crowd pleasers include spinach-artichoke dip with tortilla chips, and a Manchego-and-chorizo-stuffed trio of roasted, bacon-wrapped dates that practically explode with contrasting flavors. Fried green tomatoes employ more subtle seasoning — lemon myrtle spices sprinkled on top, some jalapeño ranch dressing on the side. The taste was solid, but the three tomato slices were too thinly cut and therefore suffocated by the tight coat of breading. A small thatch of dressed arugula leaves and Parmigiano shavings on the $7 plate was a generous touch. Excepting a $12 cheese board with Brie, Manchego, pecorino tartufo, and apple confit, the starters range from $5 to $9.
Fried green tomatoes — along with arugula, applewood-smoked bacon strips, and the same jalapeño ranch dressing — reappear as part of a BLT on multigrain bread. The sandwich board also boasts a pair of taco treatments: one with shrimp, apple, and cilantro, another with blackened mahi-mahi. The former featured cool shrimp salad tucked into a trio of flour tortillas. Our choice of side dish, couscous with mint and olive, was bland and overly chilled — apparently prepacked into serving bowls and delivered directly from the fridge.
Lulu likes to lather on garnishes and dressings, thus many foods here are difficult to lift without dripping. For example, the veggie burger: The plump patty is a blend of brown rice, black beans, beets, and spices. Muenster cheese is melted on it, and a heap of cabbage slaw sits atop. The onion-studded bun is big too, but maybe not quite big enough. The burger was delicious, however — moist and textured like rare beef, and the beet added an attractive sweetness. Had the slaw been served on the side, the exterior of the burger would have retained more crunch, and the sandwich would have been easier to lift.
A ten-ounce Lulu Angus burger is wide rather than thick, which yields a tastier meat-to-bun ratio than really fat patties. Strips of applewood-smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, and a mild chipotle sauce garnish the char-grilled beef, which is buttressed by the same onion bun as the veggie rendition. Turkey and pork burgers are offered as well.
The fries are excellent — very skinny and apparently twice-fried for an assertive crispiness. Patrons who prefer a mouthful of meatier spuds may order a small plate of wedge-cut potatoes with tartar sauce.
Main courses in small-plate-style restaurants are usually added to satisfy more conservative diners who like plates with protein, starch, and vegetable — and they usually taste as though offered grudgingly. Lulu's entrées are not nearly as fetching as the appetizers.
The shortlist includes half a free-range rotisserie chicken and a pair each of pastas, fish, and steak. Two small fillets of yellowtail snapper, which looked and tasted an awful lot like red snapper, were overburdened by an Alfredo-like cream sauce loaded with garlic and Parmesan; roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, and black olives were likewise drowned by the assertive sauce.
Fettuccine carbonara also employs an Alfredo cream instead of the traditional egg-based sauce. Bacon would have been an acceptable downgrade for guanciale had the blackened strips not tasted old and cold — as if overcooked in the morning for brunch and sitting around all day. If your heart is set on a big plate, the steak selections are less involved and therefore theoretically harder to screw up. Choices are a 12-ounce New York strip in shallot burgundy sauce and grilled churrasco with chimichurri and jalapeño mashed potatoes.
The wine list is, price-wise, as user-friendly as can be. There are 22 bottles from the usual vine-oriented regions of Europe, Latin America, and Northern California, each priced at $25 (glasses are $8 apiece). A friendly and hard-working staff knows the menu well and served us in an efficient fashion — until we wanted the check. Then it was a prolonged wait shortened only by one of us getting up, going indoors, and asking for it. On a subsequent visit, getting the check was, again, a problem.
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Desserts are presumably a work in progress. There were only three offered: a chocolate crème brûlée, tri-chocolate mousse, and tres leches, which translated to sweet bits of milk-soaked pound cake in a short, narrow glass topped with whipped cream. This will quiet a sugar craving, but overall it is a pallid version compared to the real Central American deal. A fruit-based dessert would be a considerate addition.
If it seems as though you have seen all of these menu items elsewhere, it's because you probably have. It's just as likely you've enjoyed them — which, to complete the circle, is why they are on the menu. The Bignons appear content to let others do the gastronomic trailblazing and instead concentrate on providing fresh, crisply executed renditions of likeable foods, affordable drinks, and a neighborly café setting in which to enjoy them. We're quite content with that too.