When word of Lula Restaurant-Distillery's opening spread, it wasn't immediately clear what the owners of the 10,000-square-foot space had in mind. A microdistillery that doubles as a full-service restaurant hadn't existed in the state before — partially due to old laws that limited the amount of alcohol distillers could sell directly to consumers.
Lula's vision is modeled on a marriage of house-distilled spirits and Southern-inspired fare, and while the space incorporates both missions, the two feel like separate concepts.
Giant copper and stainless steel tanks anchor the space, and the restaurant's bar program includes draft cocktails that showcase the distiller's craft. Louisiana sugarcane is used to make rum, vodka and gin, which comprise the backbone of the cocktail menu.
White rum is used in the house daiquiri, which imparts soft vanilla notes that balance the drink's tartness. The cocktail list covers the classics, from a potent Bees Knees made with gin, lemon and honey to the refreshing Vodka Basil Smash made with lemon, basil, cane sugar and soda.
Chef and co-owner Jess Bourgeois, a Commander's Palace veteran, grew up in Donaldsonville, and his menu features casual Southern-inspired dishes with dashes of local flavors.
Avocado dip is topped with hunks of pecan wood-smoked pompano and served with crusty French bread. A Vietnamese-inspired appetizer features pork sausage wrapped around sugarcane skewers, a nice nod to the Louisiana ingredient — and the real powerhouse of this operation.
Regional ingredients are found across the menu, from boudin-stuffed quail to Gulf fish and boiled seafood platters — currently including blue crabs. On one visit, grilled redfish arrived atop garlicky green onion popcorn rice with a fresh heap of herb-packed green salsa. It was served with grilled asparagus and smoky, char-marked squash, resulting in a flavorful dish that felt considerably lighter than the rest of the menu.
Appetizers and side dishes have a Southern theme, as with pickled and fried mirlitons, a great spin on the Southern bar staple. Golden-fried spears are served with a thick and creamy smoked-poblano ranch sauce, a sleeper hit that finds its way into several other dishes, including a cheeseburger and a Gulf fish club sandwich.
Not everything is a win. Boudin-filled egg rolls were bland and undercooked on one visit, and the Iberville salad — a medley of greens, grated cheddar cheese, tomatoes and pecans — was bogged down by far too much dressing.
At its best, Lula showcases elevated comfort fare. No dish pushes that button as well as the buttermilk-dredged fried Cornish hen. The petite game bird is treated to a tea brine before getting battered and fried, which leaves the dark meat tender and juicy while the outside remains crispy. A bright coleslaw, chock full of green cabbage, celery and carrot bits added the appropriate amount of crunch and tang to complement the hen.
Crawfish macaroni and cheese is a bubbly vat of melted cheese showered with Parmesan and herb breadcrumbs. Curly cavatappi pasta is swaddled in a rich, aged cheddar sauce studded with crawfish tails and thick chunks of fatty tasso.
With its yawning space, Lula doesn't seem like a neighborhood restaurant, but the casual attitude conveyed by its Southern-inspired menu and gracious waitstaff channels the ease and feel of a local spot.