Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Café Lulu

It was a sort of odd night, really. Maybe that would explain our dining experience at Lulu's. I'll blame it on the phase of the moon. Or maybe Jupiter and Mercury were mis-aligned. Who knows.

By now, if you're a Milwaukee resident, you've probably been been to Lulu's. If you haven't, you're either a North Sider, or you just moved here. Lulu's has been a Bay View fixture now for quite a few years, and recently added a second dining room / bar area next door to the original Ex-George Webbs.

The Eating Milwaukee staff and I were really planning on getting dinner at Southwoods tonight, but after a day of substantial unexpected costs, we decided to get something a little lighter, and a little less expensive. So, it was between Lulu's, Centraal, and Riviera Maya. Like Andy said after dinner, "We shoulda gone to the Mexican place."

Lulu's addition (sadly, not pictured) is a sprawling, chic space filled with quirky art and big spans of old red brick. I like it. Well lit, intimate and spacious at the same time, and smoker-friendly, the new Lulu's is my kinda joint. However, I've eaten at that half of the restaurant a million times. So, we decided to sit in the older section. Besides, (and probably more importantly), Lauren is sensitive to cigarette smoke. Which is a hazard when hanging out with me.

The original section of Lulu's upholds our ongoing theme of "Restaurants That Used To Be Something Else." An old George Webb, it keeps with the theme of New Restaurants That Used To Be George Webbs, maintaining some of that greasy-diner decor, with some very Eames-era lights, and, gasp!, more quirky art. However, this half of the restaurant is very poorly lit, with some bright, obnoxious halogen task lighting behind the counter, and yellow-tinged light bleeding across the length of the room from the very few floor lamps. The floors are old linoleum, the walls are industrial-kitchen plastic sheeting, and the ceilings are dusty acoustic tiles.

We noticed right away the painful lack of cleanliness. Dried, unidentifiable chunks of food hugged the baseboards, and it was clear where someone had just mopped around the tables and other furniture. Either it had been a really, really busy day, or someone hadn't swept and mopped properly for a while. Even if the former were true, my expectation is that the staff stay on top of cleaning duties. Just because you're busy doesn't mean you can get sloppy.

We also quickly became aware of how COLD it was where we were sitting. Our drink order came relatively quickly, and we placed our orders for appetizers and entrées.

Lulu's menu is relatively limited, but in a strangely diverse way. Burgers, salads, pitas, and wraps round things out, with only two different appetizers to choose from: spreads, and snack pizzas. Each item has a number of what I would call "trick" ingredients, which is to say, something that takes a standard burger and elevates it to edible couture. This has it's ups and downs: on one hand, it allows the diner to try things in different combinations, take a safe food and mess its hair up a little bit. On the other hand, though, a chef can try to shoe-horn a particular ingredient into a form it's just not naturally meant to be in. This seemed to be the more common experience on our visit, which I will touch upon shortly.

We ordered an assortment of three "spreads" -- Boursin cheese with herbs, Hummus, and Olive Tapenade.

Our tray featured Crostinis, warm flatbread, and slices of Marble Rye.

The spreads took a painfully long time to arrive. I mean to say, I think I saw Andy visibly age before they arrived. In fact, it became a joke, because we were almost about to leave for greener pastures -- it took that long -- when I said, "Well, we can always walk out..." and our waitress turned the corner with the spreads.

The breads were all fine, although I would have done away entirely with the marble rye. The super-strong flavor of the caraway seed completely overpowered the hummus, clashed terribly with the olives, and blew the ultra-delicate Boursin into smithereens. No wonder it was the only bread to be left when we were done -- it simply didn't work with our spreads.

And speaking of spreads...

The Boursin you can't really screw up, since it is a prepared, packaged cheese product. The olive tapenade was a little one-notey, missing the bitter-sour of capers, and lacking anything past the slightly fruit flavor of the dark olives they used. I longed for a little more nuance -- maybe some shallot, some garlic, God forbid, even the traditional-but-funky anchovy. But alas.

The hummus was incredibly garlicky. But woefully flat. Grainy, dry, and far too oily. And, although it might have been my imagination, I'm fairly certain there was no sesame tahini present. Big oversight, in my book.

Luckily, we didn't have much time to consider how disappointing the spreads were, because Andy and my soup arrived before we had eaten our second piece of bread.

We both had the Irish Cheddar and Guinness soup.

The two concurrent appetizers were a bit frustrating. I would have much rather tackled the spreads first, had some time to ruminate, and then dig into the soup. Instead, I had to leave the soup to the side, getting cold all the while, until I finished enough bread to be respected.

The soup was an interesting concept.

I wish I could stop there. Both cloyingly salty, pucker-inducing bitter, it was the sort of dish that I'm sure sounded brilliant on paper. The sharpness of the cheddar, however, only served to reinforce the bitterness of the Guinness, and left me wondering exactly which flavor was actually running the show. The traditional Wisconsin Beer-Cheese soup works because the malt and grain flavors mesh so well with the funk of domestic cheddar, but Irish cheddar and Irish beer are two different animals entirely. The grilled (leeks?) on top were a nice touch, and added flavor that was absent from the rest of the soup. More dimension! More depth! Are you getting this, Lulu's?

At one point, I drank a bit of my diet Coke, and had some still on my lips when I took my next spoonful of soup. I thought, "Wow! Maybe my tastebuds were broken! This is brilliant!" The soup, with just a little sweetness, would have been sublime. But, then I realized it was just leftover Nutrasweet, and kept eating.

However, none of us had much time to consider the disappointment of either our spreads or our soups, because our entrées came rollicking around the corner shortly after I took my first sip of soup!

None of us had really even made a dent in the spreads, hadn't even touched our soup, and our meals had arrived. Poor, poor timing.

Lauren ordered a Philly Cheesesteak:

Andy ordered a Cheeseburger:

And, I ordered a Casablanca Burger (scene missing).

My burger was smallish, especially considering the size of Andy's frozen Reinhart-burger hand-formed lookalike. A blend of beef and lamb, I'm assuming my patty didn't come on the same Reinhart truck as Andy's did. There was a very distinct spiciness to the patty, but I'm still not sure exactly what I tasted. Coriander, for sure, and maybe some oregano. Was there some thyme there? I know I tasted fenugreek, but I'm guessing it was probably a part of a curry powder, since nobody I know uses it by itself.

Otherwise, the burger was ordinary. A bit on the dry side, not overwhelmingly spiced, and not topped with anything unusual. Red onion, mealy, under-ripe tomato, and leaf-lettuce. And a feta/yogurt/black pepper sauce. By the time I was able to start eating it, it was already cold. Perhaps if our very kind, but slightly misguided waitress had waited to bring our meals out until after we had finished our soup, it might have been a little tastier. But, thus is life.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm ripping Lulu's a new one. And, to a certain extent, I am. But I feel a little betrayed that a local favorite, one that I've been going to for years and always enjoying, could fall short of my expectations in so many ways during a single visit. Having good food and a cool space doesn't make a successful restaurant. Being able to deliver good food consistently well, over and over, with excellent service: that's what makes a restaurant really shine. I've always been happy with my food at Lulu's, and never had a problem with my service, but tonight, I took issue with both. Ordinary/discordant flavors mixed with terrible timing took what was an already "meh" dining experience and dropped it down another few pegs.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: D+
I love the new side of Lulu's, but was ashamed of how dirty the Webb's portion of the restaurant was. Dirty, dirty, dirty. And if the dining room is that dirty, what does the kitchen look like?

Prices: B+
Fair prices for decent food. Dinner for the three of us came to $53. Not bad, considering the sizable appetizer platter and two soups...

Service: D-
The fact that everything we ordered came at once was nearly unforgivable. I think the only thing that kept us in our seats was the fact that I live in the neighborhood, and see these people regularly.

The Food: B
Lulu's is like that one kid you knew in High School who tried so hard. To steal an old musician's motto, Sometimes B-sharp. Never B-flat. Always B-natural. Stick with what you know. Don't try to be something you're not. Master the basics before going for the advanced stuff.


  1. I almost bought fenugrek for a recipe, but really, what do you do with it after? Love, Gina

  2. "Having good food and a cool space doesn't make a successful restaurant. Being able to deliver good food consistently well, over and over, with excellent service: that's what makes a restaurant really shine. I've always been happy with my food at Lulu's, and never had a problem with my service, but tonight"

    Kind of contradicted yourself saying the lulu needed to be more consistent and then saying they've been consistent for years except this one occasion.

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