Ever since a transcendent meal of farm-raised trout and morel mushrooms caused me to give my life over to food and restaurants many years ago, I've kept a mental tally of all the ways I would put together my own restaurant should I ever gather up the nerve to do such a thing. The space would be small, the menu would be smaller and I would decide what to cook based upon the availability of fresh products and my mood each day. It would be inexpensive enough that people like me could eat there often and well. Meals would begin with my version of the relish tray -- an assortment of variously prepared vegetables, which was always the first course in the Midwestern supper clubs where I grew up eating (worldly diners sometimes prefer to call this an antipasto platter). No one would pay for water. Desserts would ooze the best butter, eggs and cream.
During dinner at LuLu's on a recent Saturday night, I counted 32 seats. The framed chalkboard menu listed just five entrees, none of which was a repeat from my previous meal there. Entrees ranged between $18 and $24, reasonable considering the prices included a salad course and a version of the relish tray: a cool composition of big, buttery white beans, marinated portobello mushrooms, roma tomatoes cooked to sun-dried sweetness and roasted asparagus spears, beets, fennel and shallots. The only dessert offered was a brownie with a hard chocolate bottom and a gushy caramel center -- the kind of dessert that could render all professional pastry chefs obsolete. Ice water was automatically served in wide-mouthed canning jars. While we've never been formally introduced, I believe I've found a culinary soul mate in former Bayona sous-chef and LuLu's young chef-owner, Corbin Evans.
Other than in my daydreams of the near-perfect restaurant, LuLu's is located where the Old Dog New Trick Cafe used to be in Exchange Alley. Evans didn't overhaul the boxy space, but he smartened it up. The walls are clean and white, the trim a deep ketchup red and a yellow-mustard yellow. There are four silver tables, a silver clock, a photo of Evans' great-grandmother, LuLu, and Evans himself behind the counter sweatlessly producing each plate of food to the voices of Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello. If you sit at one of the four alley tables, you eat alongside potted lavender and petunias and sometimes within talking distance of customers paying a lot more for fancier food at the neighboring Pelican Club. A poetic breeze seems to tickle this alleyway on even the most sweltering afternoons.
I sent friends to LuLu's before I had eaten there myself, so enamored was I of the lunch menu I had received in the mail. The words strung together like farm-fresh haikus, which I would know because I recited them over and over again: roasted chicken salad with celery heart, carrot and Amish blue cheese on crisphead lettuce; egg sandwich of the day made with fresh yard eggs. The Maras Farms sprout salad, made with all sorts of nutty sprouted seeds and shoots from Chef Gerard Maras' Northshore farm, could make any manly man crave sprouts. The OOOey Gooey Bar is like a study of dairy products. A shrimp BLT on toasted sourdough bread is alive with the thick, chunky flavors of high-quality bacon, jammy roasted tomatoes, crunchy shrimp and Creole mustard.
During LuLu's weekend-only BYOB dinners, however, you learn that Evans' talent should not be restrained to the space between two slices of toast. Plan your evenings around these dinners, which can last a couple of hours when he and one sprinting server build unforgettable meals out of their chaos. Your hours could not be better spent.
After the relish tray/antipasto starter, Evans served my table a salad of marinated cucumbers, gumball-size tomatoes, soft feta cheese and iceberg lettuce, proving himself capable of making a respectable vegetable out of iceberg. His refreshing, atypical (for these parts) cooking style is unobsessed with starch; if you choose an entree like juicy, pan-fried softshell crabs served on a sprout salad, or whole roasted striped bass slathered in basil pesto, a bread basket could be the only carbohydrate you face all night.
In other dishes, his starches are unfussy. A magical bowl of just-done mussels, chunks of sweet potato, fresh peas and cilantro stems was awash in a spicy, carrot-sweet coconut curry broth. A tender lamb shank with white rice and peas held no surprise except how happy I was to be eating white rice with peas. Half a roasted chicken with buttered bowtie pasta -- perhaps the most straightforward, and potentially most boring, dish served in the French Quarter that evening -- was so delicious it was baffling.
Coffee mugs deeper than the deepest soup bowl seem to encourage lingering, which my out-of-town friends and I did after deciding that our previous plan to stroll down Bourbon Street after dinner might spoil an otherwise flawless evening. Which is the highest compliment I can pay to a man who was brave enough to open my dream restaurant on such a prime sliver of French Quarter real estate.
- Cheryl Gerber
- LULU's chef-owner Corbin Evans has set up shop in the space formerly occupied by the Old Dog New Trick Cafe in Exchange Alley.